Rose Bowl: Herbert's last stand
LOS ANGELES — Justin Herbert led the Oregon Ducks through their rebuilding, from a poor 4-8 freshman season to a Rose Bowl berth in his senior year.
And, no, he wasn't about to skip the Rose Bowl and add to a trend of NFL first-round picks who leave their college team early to train for the pros. None of Oregon's top seniors — Herbert, Shane Lemieux, Calvin Throckmorton, etc. — entertained the idea.
"This is the Rose Bowl," Herbert said. "This is everything we've been working for. It never crossed my mind, and I don't think it ever crossed anybody's mind on our team. We're so excited, and this is such a great opportunity for our team and our program, and we're really excited to play."
The Ducks will play Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl at 2 p.m. Wednesday in Pasadena, California. Oregon (11-2) pounded Utah 37-15 in the Pac-12 title game.
Herbert returned for his senior season rather than jump to the NFL where he likely would have been a high first-round pick (which he'll surely be come April's NFL draft).
"This is the experience that we wanted when a lot of us decided to come back, and this is the potential that I knew our team had. It's just been so much fun," he said.
"No one is here on vacation. It's a business trip, and we're doing our best to watch as much film as we can and stay focused in practice and things like that."
Herbert has one college game left. He's savoring it.
"It's pretty surreal," the Sheldon High product said. "Growing up being a Duck fan ... this was the end for me, and it was always to play football for the University of Oregon. Every year has been just exactly what I had hoped for. ... It's been a crazy ride."
The 6-6, 235-pound Herbert was only named honorable mention Pac-12, behind Utah's Tyler Huntley and Washington State's Anthony Gordon. He has thrown for 3,333 yards and 32 TDs with only five interceptions; entering the Rose Bowl, he has career totals of 10,403 yards and 95 touchdowns.
A lot of eyes will be on Herbert as NFL scouts determine how he compares to LSU's Joe Burrow and others for the draft. It's a pressure situation for a player who could be a top-five NFL pick.
"I don't think he's worried about it, to be honest," Oregon receiver Johnny Johnson III said. "I think he's really focused on his team and getting us to win championships, and that's all his focus is on.
"It's not every day you get to have a quarterback like this on your side. So, I'm just grateful."
A bond has developed among Herbert and senior linemen Jake Hanson, Throckmorton, Lemieux, Dallas Warmack and Brady Aiello. Besides Warmack, each was part of the disastrous 2016 season as young players.
"You kind of just develop the same mind-set," said Hanson, the center. "It just comes easier on the field."
Hanson said Herbert built trust with fellow seniors over time.
"Obviously, he's a quieter guy, especially in front of the camera, but he has a good sense of humor. He's a funny guy," Hanson said. "He's just the type of guy that you have to get to know a little bit before he starts cracking jokes around you and that kind of stuff. He's a good-natured, funny guy."
Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin defensive coordinator, had some high praise for Herbert.
"He's impressive," he said. "He's very, very talented. I don't think he gets enough credit for what they ask him to do. He's a true progression quarterback. More athletic than he gets credit for. ... He makes you earn it every down."
Leonhard compared him, somewhat, with Iowa's Nate Stanley from the Big Ten.
"It's very similar just with what is on his plate, what they ask him to do, checking in and out of runs, how they give him tells in the pass game to help him get through his progressions," Leonhard said.
Said Wisconsin safety Eric Burrell: "He's a great quarterback. He can make all the throws. He can beat us — he can beat people on his feet, too."
Here's a scenario that would be interesting to see: What UO players who are redshirting could play in the Rose Bowl and still retain their redshirt status? Hmm. What about freshman tight end Patrick Herbert, Justin's brother?
The Ducks, of course, would never share their plans ahead of the game. Guess we'll see come Wednesday.
Herbert said it's been cool to play on the same team as his younger brother.
"He's a really good guy, and he works hard," the elder Herbert said. "He's done a lot of good things, and unfortunately he hasn't had the opportunity to play as much as he would have liked. But, he's been tough. He's learned a lot, and he's getting there, and he's going to be really good one day."
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