It had been a while since the Oregon offense put a scare into an opposing defense and with Herbert back on the field, Arizona had every reason to frightened.
Herbert’s return sparked the Ducks to a huge 48-28 win over Arizona in front of 51,799 fans inside Autzen Stadium. With the win, Oregon (6-5) is now bowl eligible with the Civil War looming next Saturday in Eugene.
Although Herbert’s return might be the main storyline, Royce Freeman stole the show with his four touchdowns on the night. The senior tailback went for 135 yards on the ground, which included touchdown runs of 4, 28, 11 and one yard. His last touchdown came early in the fourth quarter and sealed to deal for what used to be a struggling Oregon offense.
But with their star sophomore signal caller healthy and on the field, this was the team Oregon and its fans were hoping to see for the entire season. The Ducks were 4-1 when Herbert’s collarbone was broken in the Cal game.
After being forced to go with a true freshman in Burmeister, the Duck’s season derailed by going 1-4 with the only win against Utah.
Herbert didn’t need to throw for 400 yards in order to be effective. Just the threat of a downfield aerial attack was enough to keep the Arizona defense honest.
Oregon took advantage and rushed for 353 yards, including Tony Brooks-James’ 124 yards.
Just because Oregon ran around, over and through the Wildcats, that doesn’t mean Herbert never threw the ball. He did and then some. He finished the game 14-of-21 for 235 yards with one touchdown and an interception.
Herbert almost had a second touchdown in the fourth on a little razzle dazzle play where Herbert handed the ball off to Charles Nelson then the receiver flipped the ball back to the quarterback and then a 50-yard strike to Johnny Johnson inside the one-yard line.
Another weakness the Ducks seemed to have corrected was having problems in the second half. Not tonight. Oregon outscored Arizona 20-7 and pulled away.
In what might be the Ducks’ most efficient drives on the season, they made the score 35-21 on a 10-play, 94-yard drive that took an even four minutes and ended with Freeman’s third score of the night.
Arizona (7-4) responded with an eight-play, 75-yard drive to make it 35-28, but that would be the last time the Wildcats would score.
The key to holding Arizona’s offense down was to contain Heisman hopeful Khalil Tate down to a minimum. After a good first half, Tate had trouble finding open running lanes and open receivers in the second half.
For the game, Tate was 18-of-35 for 159 yards and two interceptions. He also rushed for 32 yards, well below his average of 161 yards.
“I saw they had some success slowing him down. We didn’t block them well, we didn’t read them well, and they did a good job,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said of his star quarterback being shut down. “The frustrating part is we’ll probably watch the film, and they were playing the exact way we thought they’d play, but they were better than us.”
The Ducks sputtered in their first possession, but got things rolling on their second. It was Herbert who was rolling, as in rolling out to his left and finding nothing in between him and 40 yards of green turf as he ran untouched into the end zone to tie the game 7-7 midway through the opening quarter.
Herbert’s legs are not his biggest weapon, unlike Tate, but he can make a defense pay dearly if they don’t respect his running ability.
Oregon captured its first lead two minutes later when the Ducks completed a six-play, 46-yard drive with Freeman’s first touchdown of the night, his 59th of his storied career.
Then things became chippy, really chippy.
Both teams were hit with several unsportsmanlike penalties throughout the first half, but none more obvious than when Dane Cruikshank seemed to have an easy Pick-6. But for some reason on the way to the end zone, the defensive back felt the need to taunt the Ducks. His touchdown was erased, but it didn’t matter as Arizona scored three plays later to tie the game 14-14 with 13:13 before halftime.
Oregon was penalized seven times for 80 yards and Arizona was flagged five times for 59 yards in the first half.
“The first half we were competing, but we were just totally uncharacteristically undisciplined,” said Rodriguez. “There were the holding penalties and guys getting frustrated, but I mean holy cow. The undisciplined part of it from techniques to penalties to stuff like that, we just can’t afford to do those things. They had some too when the game was close, but we can’t have those things.”
Arizona kept the momentum when the Cats regained the lead on Nick Wilson’s 20-yard touchdown run and it was 21-14 Arizona.
Thankfully for Oregon, its offense managed to get rolling once again. Herbert’s 39-yard pass to Jacob Breeland tied the game at 21-21 with 6:59 left in the second quarter.
Freeman gave Oregon a 28-21 lead just before halftime on a 28-yard rush.
The Ducks can now look to the Civil War and a Beaver team that is 1-10 and having a tough year to say the least. But as everyone knows who is involved with this rivalry, the records don’t mean a whole lot. Oregon will be looking to avenge a 34-24 loss it suffered last season up in Corvallis. Kickoff is set for 4 pm on the Pac-12 Network.
~ Don Smalley