In his first season as head coach of the Ducks, Willie Taggart has instilled in his players to “Do Something.”
On Saturday night versus Cal, a few more players than originally planned were asked to do something. A slew of injuries, headlined by impairments to Justin Herbert and Royce Freeman, led to anxiety across Autzen Stadium and a sense of uncertainty heading forward. For the time being, the Ducks were able to grind out a 45-24 win over the Golden Bears for their first win in Pac-12 play.
“I realized that this team cares about each other,” Taggart said. “We’re doing all the things that we set out and addressed early.”
When Oregon finally pulled away from Cal in the game’s final minutes, there was no reason to stress over the outcome of the game on the field. However, that stress is about to amplify moving forward.
Following the game, reports came out that Herbert broke his collarbone. The injury occurred on a seven-yard touchdown run that put the Ducks up 17-0. Taggart did not offer an official diagnosis on Herbert.
“I just gave him a hug and said that we’re all here for him,” center Jake Hanson said.
Backup Taylor Alie entered for Herbert, and did not fare well. He was unable to move the ball down the field with his arm, completing only nine passes for 41 yards. Alie threw an interception that led to a Cal touchdown at the end of the half to cut the deficit to 17-7 and give some energy to the visitors heading into halftime.
To make matters even tougher, Alie didn’t make it to the end of the game, leaving with an injury. That led to freshman Braxton Burmeister entering for the first time in his collegiate career.
The shuffle in quarterbacks shifted to a game plan that focused heavily on the running game in the second half. The ground attack was led by Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James, and not Freeman, who himself left earlier in the game with what appeared to be a right arm injury. Benoit and Brooks-James combined for 217 yards on the ground and three touchdowns to lead the way. Darrian Felix also pitched in with 27 rushing yards and a score at the end of the game to make it 45-24.
“We came here to be the best running backs in the country,” Brooks-James said. “They know the run is coming but you can’t stop it.”
With Herbert out, Cal knew that the Ducks would be running the ball. Coach Taggart and his team were quick to give credit to the offensive line, which bounced back in a big manner following its below-average outing in the Ducks’ 37-35 loss at Arizona State last Saturday.
“I was really proud of those guys,” Taggart said. “I challenged them this past Sunday…those guys took that challenge.”
Cal’s running game, on the other hand, was in a rut all night long, rushing for only 52 yards on a combined 29 attempts. The offense got the job done on their side of the ball, but the Ducks’ defensive effort was especially admirable in preventing Cal from threatening the early 17-0 lead Oregon jumped out to in the first quarter. They also allowed the offense to adjust with the change at the quarterback position.
With Herbert potentially set to miss a considerable amount of time, the status of Freeman still up in the air and No. 16 Washington State coming into Eugene next week, Ducks who may not have expected advanced roles will be given their chance to shine.
Follow Cole Kundich on Twitter @ckundich