It wasn’t a pretty site offensively for the Ducks on Saturday at Autzen Stadium as they struggled to move the ball against Washington State’s improved, but far from elite, defense. Don’t get me wrong, the Cougars look good, certainly a double-digit win team. They do not, however, strike me as a team with a legitimate shot at the college football playoff or the national title. What made Washington State’s defense so successful was that they correctly predicted that without starting quarterback Justin Herbert, Oregon’s offense would be one-dimensional. And unfortunately, the Ducks obliged.
True Freshman Braxton Burmeister took the field under center, and though he certainly showed some toughness and shiftiness, using his legs to avoid the pursuit of the Cougar defense while hanging in to take some pops at the tail end of his scrambles, Washington State clearly knew the youngster was not a threat to burn them downfield through the air. In the first quarter there was a flicker of hope as Burmeister lobbed a pretty 30-yard touchdown strike to tight end Jacob Breeland. Oregon took a 10-7 lead and maybe, fans thought; maybe if this kid can come through with plays like that we might have a chance of pulling this off.
But it wasn’t to be. For the remainder of the game Burmeister struggled mightily with his deep balls, completely missing several receivers and being picked off twice. He was relegated to short, horizontal passes for the most part, and ended the game 15 of 27 for only 145 yards and the lone touchdown. Until Herbert returns, Burmeister is going to be under a great deal of pressure and criticism. I think he’ll improve. I wouldn’t be shocked if he was able to help Oregon win one of its next 3 games, all against tough, but clearly beatable opponents. This will be a good learning experience for him and hopefully one that will have him in a confident state of mind upon Herbert’s return.
The thing is though, none of that can fix what I believe to be the true issue with having Burmeister at the helm of Oregon’s offense. It’s an issue we’ve actually seen plenty of over the last decade, and something that isn’t really Burmeister’s fault, more of a misjudgment on UO’s coaching and recruiting staff. There’s no question Oregon’s offense becomes an entirely different monster with a dynamic quarterback orchestrating it. And by dynamic I’m referring to a quarterback who presents problems to opposing defenses with his arm and his legs. The problem is, some of these quarterbacks rely more on the latter than the former instead of vice versa. In layman’s terms, Burmeister is a running quarterback who can throw. I think it’s been proven Oregon’s best chance for success lies with a throwing quarterback who can run.
Examples of such can be found riddled throughout the last decade of Oregon Football. In the 2007 Civil War Oregon looked dead in the water with running quarterback Cody Kempt directing the offense. But after Kempt was clobbered and left the game it was Justin Roper who stepped in and ignited Oregon with his passing game and nearly led them to a victory they probably should have had. The next season Roper and newcomer Jeremiah Masoli were both out of a game against Boise State and that left Oregon with two true freshmen to try and salvage a win. Chris Harper was run over and over again to the point where he might as well have been a tailback and when he finally decided to attempt a pass it was promptly intercepted. Enter Darron Thomas, who like Roper nearly got Oregon the W with his downfield passing abilities. And while Oregon found success behind running-quarterback-who-could-pass Masoli (Holiday Bowl victory, Rose Bowl appearance) it was nothing compared to the level they reached behind passing-quarterback-who-could-run Thomas (12-0 regular season, Rose Bowl champions). We were all spoiled with the brilliance of Marcus Mariota, who aside from being one of, if not the, most efficient passers in the nation possessed the kind of burning speed that left even opposing defensive backs in the dust. But after Mariota’s departure the issue again became prevalent. With a healthy Vernon Adams Jr. (another pass-first quarterback), Oregon looked like a National Powerhouse, while during his absence backups Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie showed a painstaking inability to get the ball downfield through the air, rendering Oregon a very mediocre team.
Which brings us back to Burmeister. If one views his high school highlights it’s easy enough to see what makes him appealing to Division 1 schools. The kid has great athleticism, amazing speed and agility in the open field, and a tough demeanor as he’s clearly not afraid to take a big hit or two. What concerned me personally though, was that majority of the highlights consisted of Burmeister looking to create his own offense using his legs. And while there’s some pretty nice throws off of scrambles, rarely do you see him set up in the pocket, eyes downfield, looking for and delivering strikes to receivers.
On Saturday morning though, Oregon capped off its unprecedented 2018 recruiting class by adding the one element the stellar stable lacked; a quarterback. Tyler Shough, the 6’4” 187-pound signal caller from Hamilton High School in Chandler Arizona, officially flipped to Oregon after previously committing to North Carolina.
Shough is rated the No. 4 pro-style passer in the nation and a quick rundown of his highlights shows you why. This kid is a natural in the pocket, dropping straight back after the snap, head up, eyes downfield, arm cocked and loaded. And that arm can deliver some strikes with precision reminiscent of what Herbert has shown us prior to his injury.
The nice thing is that is majority of what you see in his highlight reels: three-step drops, pocket presence, and lasers downfield. Granted, Shough is also quite the scrambler when he needs to be, flitting away from defenders on a few broken plays for positive yardage. Ever since instituting the pro-style offense in 2005 Oregon has heralded quarterbacks who can make plays with their legs. However, whether it’s high school, NCAA, or even the NFL, the best quarterbacks always do what quarterbacks are first and foremost supposed to be doing: throwing the ball downfield.
Oregon is never scraping the barrel for offensive skill players, and sometimes it’s best to let those skill players make big plays and let the quarterback do his primary job. Again, we’ve not seen nearly enough of Burmeister’s full repertoire to pass any final judgment (pun intended), and I do think he can be a capable quarterback while Herbert recovers. However, the idea of having a backup behind our gun-slinger who can knowingly step in and deliver similar results via a similar style of play just sounds like a good idea doesn’t it?
A really good idea.