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BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Oregon's up-and-down season, and postseason, figures to end on a high note

After an up-and-down season, it almost feels like a big deal for the Oregon Ducks to be playing in the Las Vegas Bowl, going for an eighth win.

The "what if?" crowd might look at QB Justin Herbert's 5 1/2-game absence with a broken collarbone as the reason the Ducks lost four games without him, and the season could have gone much better with him. Not necessarily, as the Ducks were outscored 151-34 in the four games; they might have beaten UCLA, but maybe not the others.

But an 8-5 season with a win over Boise State (10-3) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday would be a fine finish to a tumultuous season.

Besides Herbert's injury, the Ducks simply had to show they had improved since the 4-8 of 2016, especially on defense. And they did improve — and then lost their head coach, Willie Taggart, when he left for Florida State.

In steps Mario Cristobal, offensive line coach and run game guru, as the head man.

Royce Freeman had a great year, but now the Ducks move on as the senior running back has opted not to play in the Vegas Bowl.

Herbert should still shine with his arm, though, and he'll have the backing of some good running backs in Kani Benoit, Tony Brooks-James and Darrian Felix. And standout offensive left tackle Tyrell Crosby will play in the game.

So, what to make of Boise State?

The Broncos feature a good QB-receiver combination in Brett Rypien and Cedrick Wilson, but injuries elsewhere leave a little doubt about whether Boise State can consistently move the ball on the Ducks, who still have defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt calling the shots — for now.

But, I'm also not sure Oregon can roll offensively on the BSU defense, which has been relatively solid on defense.

As far as coaching, I would give Boise State the advantage, simply because Bryan Harsin is entrenched and won big games and Cristobal is coaching his first game with the Ducks. The Broncos, although they've beaten many Pac-12 teams, surely want to add another Pac-12 victim to their resume.

I expect a close game and a lot of points. And, I expect the Ducks to play with spirit, unlike the last time the team played in the Vegas Bowl, the pathetic 38-8 loss to BYU in 2006, which served as the impetus for the UO program to strive for greatness.

And, I expect Herbert to be the big difference-maker.

So, here's to an eight-win Oregon team, which wins and sets the stage for a big 2018 season — 10-2, 11-1 or 12-0, perhaps?

THE PICK: Oregon 41, Boise State 31

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