BERKELEY, Calif. – Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert dropped to one knee near Oregon's sideline after his final pass resulted in an interception that gave California a 52-49 win in double overtime Friday night at Memorial Stadium.
The play, which resulted in Cal's team storming the field, left the Ducks dejected after they had fought back from a three-touchdown deficit.
UO coach Mark Helfrich was the first to rush to Herbert. The coach lifted up his freshman quarterback and offered support. Soon, several players swarmed in to console Herbert, who had thrown six touchdown passes on the evening.
Helfrich was there for his quarterback in his first moment of crushing defeat where he had made the critical mistake to cost Oregon a victory. In the bigger picture, however, Herbert could ultimately lift Helfrich from the ashes of what is rapidly becoming the worst season for Oregon (2-5, 0-4 Pac-12) since at least 2004 (5-6) and maybe as far back as 1991 (3-8).
Many are calling for Helfrich's head despite the fact that he guided the 2014 Oregon team to a Pac-12 title, a Rose Bowl victory and a berth in the national championship game. Troubles at quarterback and a pitiful defense in the two seasons since have cast a shadow over Helfrich's ability to oversee recruiting and develop talent.
Herbert's rise is step one toward erasing that perception, ridiculous on its surface given that Helfrich recruited and helped develop Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota. Herbert is Oregon's next Mariota.
The kid is legit, and then some.
One of the greatest compliments paid toward Herbert since his arrival this fall from Sheldon High School is that he always appears to be an unflappable perfectionist, much like Mariota was. Then factor in Herbert's 6-foot-6 athletic frame, nimble feet, uncanny pocket savvy, quick release, rocket arm and keen accuracy, and you have the makings of a potential superstar.
Oregon has traditionally only been great when it had at least a very good quarterback running the show. Joey Harrington, Kellen Clemens, Darron Thomas and Mariota all led the Ducks to double-digit win seasons, and all into national contention, as did Dennis Dixon in 2007 before a knee injury ended his season with Oregon ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Herbert is next in the line of great UO quarterbacks, and the prediction here is that barring injury he will be a Heisman finalist in 2018 and a first-round NFL draft pick in 2019 or 2020.
Herbert's composure and strong mental makeup have been on display in his two starts, although Herbert's youth might have ultimately led to the final decision by the coaches that ended Friday's game in defeat.
More on that later. First, back to Herbert's moxie.
During a 70-21 loss to No. 5 Washington on Oct. 8, Herbert never appeared to be rattled. He threw an interception on the first play of the game, contributed to the team falling behind 21-0 and could never pull the Ducks back into the game, but he didn't fold. He kept pressing. Kept playing. Kept going, and he eventually threw two eye-popping touchdown passes.
On Friday night, Herbert struggled early and the Ducks fell behind 21-0 in the second quarter and trailed 34-14 in the second half. Once again, Herbert didn't crumble. Instead, he become red hot and his six-yard touchdown pass to Charles Nelson gave UO a 35-34 lead in the fourth quarter.
Through it all, Herbert displayed ridiculous talent. The type or talent that thrusts a player past a seasoned veteran like Dakota Prukop and a redshirt freshman like Travis Jonsen, rated coming out of high school as the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the nation by Rivals.com.
Herbert, a former three-star recruit, completed 22-of-40 passes for 258 yards against Cal. He threw touchdown passes on the run, he threw them over the middle, he gunned them on post patterns, and in the case of Nelson, he displayed a level of confidence typically unseen by a freshman.
On the play, Herbert looked left for Carrington who ran a rather interesting slant pattern that fooled nobody, then without hesitation turned his attention to the other side of the field to locate Nelson, also running a slant, and fired a bullet low where only the receiver could get it between two defenders.
The ball zipped right past Cal linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk, helpless to defend the hard-thrown ball (foreshadow alert).
With the Ducks trailing 42-35, Oregon went to Nelson again, this time on a post pattern from the right side run underneath a deeper route. Nelson caught the pass and ran the rest of the way for a 42-yard touchdown that tied the game at 42 each.
Once again, Kunaszyk was out of position after biting on a play action and not dropping far enough to his left to get in the way or the pass (more foreshadowing).
In overtime, Oregon went to the exact same play, this time with redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jalen Brown running the post underneath a deeper route. The result was a 20-yard touchdown pass that gave Oregon a short-lived 49-42 lead in the first overtime.
Once again, Cal's Kunaszyk got caught out of position.
Cal tied the game on its next possession then settled for a field goal in the second overtime to make the score 52-49, setting up Herbert for a potential game-winning score.
Once again, Oregon went back to the same play that had resulted in touchdown passes to Nelson and Brown.
This time, Brown ran the post underneath a seam route from tight end Pharaoh Brown. But unlike on the two touchdown passes, Kunaszyk didn't bite as hard on play action, he read Herbert's eyes and then got in front of the pass intended for Brown who ran a post.
Herbert said linemen blocked his vision and he never saw Kunaszyk, who briefly bobbled the pass before securing the ball and running for a few yards before going down.
“It worked the past couple of times and looked very similar on that play," Herbert said. "I just didn’t see the linebacker and he got under it and made a good play.”
Said Brown: "I was surprised that the linebacker jumped it. I thought I was going to get the ball no matter what."
Helfrich on Sunday night said of Herbert on the interception: "I think he kind of predetermined that he was going to go to that side. There was another route that was in the progression and the first guy was open. That's one of those things where you're kind of hoping for what's gonna happen rather than attacking and reacting to what you see."
A freshman mistake made by a talented kid who played nothing like a freshman.
Following the interception, Herbert briefly ran after Kunaszyk then stopped after the linebacker gave up. That's when a dejected Herbert went down to one knee and Helfrich ran to him.
The fact Oregon went to the same play over and over could be because of Herbert's youth and limited knowledge of the playbook. At some point, one must consider that the defense is going to figure out a play. In this case, Kunaszyk certainly did. Herbert, however, didn't recognize him the way the linebacker recognized the play.
“I’d do the exact same thing at the end and trust him to make the play," Helfrich said Friday night.
Players have the same confidence in Herbert and that's why they rallied to him after the defeat.
"We wanted to show him that we've got his back," Brown said. "He has a great heart and a great passion for this game.
“I still trust him with everything in me,” redshirt sophomore running back Tony Brooks-James said.
As they should. Herbert is the savior. He might not be able to save this season, but he is what Oregon needs moving forward, and his presence as a budding talent should buy Helfrich and the coaching staff time to rebuild this thing despite the swirling insanity among those actually considering jettisoning this coaching staff after one bad season just two years removed from a national title run.
The man to lead Herbert to great heights, as he did Mariota, is Helfrich. He and his staff deserve the chance to rebuild the defense, which will return 10 starters next season, and see Herbert's development through, as well as the development of a young offensive line. If given that chance, the Ducks will rise again.
“It’s a step in the right direction but definitely not the way we wanted it to end,” Herbert said.
No, but nights like Friday will only make Herbert stronger and better, and the Ducks will one day benefit from the lumps they are taking this season.