Ducks are back
EUGENE — Everything was right for Oregon on Saturday: QB Justin Herbert returned to throw (and run) the ball downfield, the defense prepared well for Arizona's Khalil Tate and the Ducks won 48-28 to celebrate achieving bowl eligibility.
Herbert, who had been out 5 1/2 games with a broken collarbone, started and ran and bounced up after taking a hit on the game's fifth play, and then scored on a 40-yard touchdown run and threw deep for another score.
The Ducks held Tate, who had obliterated defenses in the past six games, to 32 net yards on 14 carries and thus held down the Arizona offense.
Royce Freeman rushed for 135 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries, and Tony Brooks-James went for 124 yards on 19 carries to lead UO's 588 yards of offense.
Oregon's win at Autzen Stadium, after a timely bye week, harkened to another couple times in the program's history — when such routs felt routine, as in the Chip Kelly era, but also when snaring the sixth win meant going to a bowl game. Other than last year, during a 4-8 campaign, the past several years meant earning bowl eligibility in the sixth, seventh or eighth game; it took 11 this season, but it happened.
"Feels great to be bowl-eligible, especially after last year and how the seniors felt," says Freeman, who added rushing TDs to his list of all-time UO records. He now owns rushing, total offense, rushing TDs and total TDs for records.
"It's a big win," receiver Charles Nelson said. "Shows us what we can do when everybody's on the field."
The Ducks (6-5, 3-5 Pac-12) will play in-state rival Oregon State (1-10, 0-8) in the Civil War game, 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 25 at Autzen, and will likely be overwhelming favorites to notch win No. 7.
"Means a lot," Oregon coach Willie Taggart said, of bowl eligibility. "Shows the progress of our football team. We did it right for the seniors."
And, it obviously meant a lot for Herbert to be back. He went 14 of 21 for 235 yards passing, with one TD and one interception. His presence greatly elevated the threat to throw downfield that had been lacking in his absence, although he threw a first-half interception on a long ball.
Arizona led after Tate led a drive downfield. But then Herbert ripped off a 40-yard TD run.
"There was pressure inside, and I got out to the left and didn't see anybody in front of me, and so I took off," Herbert said.
The big play officially stamped his return and helped him relieve nerves from playing after a significant injury. A positive X-ray on Thursday basically cleared him to play.
The Ducks' thoughts:
• "It was a lot of fun to be back," Herbert said.
• "Having Justin back took the pressure off Royce and the running backs and opened things up," center Jake Hanson said.
• "It allowed us to move faster," Freeman said.
• "Justin's an irreplaceable player," Nelson said.
• "Having Justin back inspired our entire football team," Taggart said.
The Ducks boasted of their performance against Tate, who hadn't rushed for fewer than 137 yards and had carried for as many as 327 in his six-game blitz. Oregon used outside linebackers to force Tate to hand the ball off rather than keep the ball on the option. Tate had a high run of 13 yards among his measly 32 yards rushing. Passing, he was 18 of 35 for 159 yards, with two interceptions and one touchdown.
The Ducks also credited scout-team quarterback Demetri Burch for his simulation of Tate in practice.
Defensive back Ugo Amadi said, simply, "Burch gave us a better look than Tate did. We executed pretty well, only 32 rushing yards."
Added Taggart: "I heard guys say Demetrius Burch was tougher than Khalil Tate. They practiced like a game against him."
The Ducks, who had been outscored 151-34 in four losses without Herbert — meaning Amadi and the defense had given up almost 40 points per game in the losses — allowed only 171 rushing yards on 45 carries (3.8 per).
"Just got to keep him in the box," linebacker Troy Dye said of Tate. "He's elusive, a strong dude, you don't know what he's going to do in space."
The game was close into the third quarter, back and forth, and it was chippy. It had lots of penalites and confrontations, as each team played with some hunger and young players. But the Ducks played consistently on offense and defense, and broke free in the second half, which is when they had struggled in past games (going scoreless in five games after halftime).
Freeman's first TD put Oregon up 14-7, but then Arizona scored twice, including once after a fairly unusual penalty.
Dane Cruikshank picked off Herbert and appeared to run the ball back for a touchdown, but he got called for taunting an Oregon player as he closed in on the end zone. Officials can now disallow a touchdown based on a taunting penalty, and it happened. But the Wildcats scored anyway, on Tate's 15-yard TD pass to Tony Ellison.
The Wildcats went up 21-14 on Nick Wilson's second TD run. But Oregon bounced back, as Herbert connected on a 39-yard TD pass with Jacob Breeland.
Later, Freeman raced in for a 21-yard score and a 28-21 UO halftime lead.
After stopping Arizona to open the second half, Oregon methodically went downfield with a 94-yard drive, highlighted by Freeman's 26-yard run and Brooks-James' 35-yarder. Freeman scored on a 12-yard TD run for a 35-21 lead.
Arizona closed to within 35-28, but Oregon kept pushing. Facing third-and-14, Herbert threw 35 yards to tight end Cam McCormick. Aidan Schneider hit a 40-yard field goal.
Another defensive stop followed, and Oregon took advantage of a poor UA punt and scored quickly. On a flea-flicker play involving, suggested by Nelson ("my little O.C.," as in offensive coordinator, Taggart said), Herbert threw 50 yards to Johnny Johnson, who was stopped just short of the end zone, and Freeman finished things with a 1-yard TD run, making the score 45-28.
"I felt we should take a shot," Nelson said. "The way they were playing us, I felt it would work."
Schneider made a second field goal and missed a field goal in the fourth quarter.
Oregon looked good thanks largely to Herbert's return and its defensive game plan. A team can get away with 12 penalties for 117 yards with such sound execution.
"We were back to being explosive, plays that the offense relies on," Taggart said. "Whenever you can throw the ball downfield, it helps the run game, especially when you run the ball well."
Defensively, Taggart added, "really discplined — we made (Tate) give it to the running back, rather than run. We took the ball out of his hands. (Other teams) did the opposite. It worked for us."