Herbert’s return revitalizes the Ducks, proving how valuable he is
All eyes were on Autzen Stadium’s jumbotron as injured redshirt senior Doug Brenner announced Oregon’s starting lineup ahead of the Ducks’ game against Arizona.
An image of quarterback Justin Herbert appeared on the screen and the roar of the crowd came before Brenner could even say a word.
Herbert was back.
“I think having Justin back inspired our entire football team to go out and play the way we are capable of doing,” head coach Willie Taggart said. “Having him back got everyone playing at a high level of confidence.”
For the first time since he fractured his collarbone while diving into the end zone for a touchdown against Cal on Sept. 30, Herbert returned to the field to start for the Ducks in their 48-28 win over the Wildcats. He ended the game 14-of-21 for 235 yards, one rushing and passing touchdown and an interception.
Herbert wasn’t afraid to air it out. He found Jacob Breeland on a 39-yard touchdown pass in the first half to tie the game at 21, but Herbert’s most impressive throw may have come in the beginning of the fourth quarter.
On 1st-and-10 on Oregon’s 49, Herbert handed the ball off to Royce Freeman, who tossed it to Charles Nelson. Nelson then pitched it back to Herbert, who launched the ball down the left sideline and found a leaping freshman Johnny Johnson III half a yard shy of the end zone.
The Ducks call that play “the rabbit pass.” According to Taggart, it was Nelson who during the game reminded Taggart of running the play, prompting Taggart to call Nelson his “mini O.C. (offensive coordinator).”
“It’s something just we worked it earlier in the season and Herbert came back I said, ‘We’re gonna run it,’” Taggart said. “I told the guys the other day we’re gonna run it, we practiced it every single day and I told them we’re gonna do it and when I called it they all looked at me like I was crazy but I told them, ‘We’re gonna do it.’”
The Ducks missed Herbert’s passing presence dearly, earning only 352 passing yards in the five games that Herbert did not play in.
His passing game elevated the Ducks in the win. Herbert also showed off something not normally associated with the Eugene native: running.
Down seven in the first quarter, Herbert elected to hold onto the ball during a pass play and ran it 40 yards to the end zone to tie the game. That run alone bested Arizona quarterback Kahlil Tate’s total rush yards of 32 in 14 carries.
“I don’t think anybody thought that was going to happen before the game,” center Jake Hanson said. “I certainly didn’t.”
A big concern about playing Herbert was the fact that he had not been hit since the injury. Oregon wouldn’t hit him during practice, so a hit during the game would be a moment of truth.
In the first quarter, he took that hit and got right back up.
“I was just hoping that he would slide,” Taggart said. “We even worked on him practicing sliding, you know? I was just hoping he would go out there sliding and he did and it was good to see him get up and bounce back.”
And just like Herbert, the Ducks bounced back with the win.
Follow Shawn Medow on Twitter @ShawnMedow
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