EUGENE, Oregon — The Ducks were dominant in a 48-28 victory over Arizona on Saturday night. Quarterback Justin Herbert returned to lead an offense that amassed 588 total yards compared to the Wildcats’ 330. With the massive win in front of 51,799 fans at Autzen Stadium, Oregon became bowl eligible.
“It was huge having Herbert back,” said head coach Willie Taggart. “Those explosive plays really help. It was good to have Herbert back.”
This game had the makings of the game of the year for both teams. Yet, Oregon didn’t want to share with Arizona, stealing all the spotlight for themselves. Overall, UO’s defense held Khalil Tate to 32 rushing yards and two interceptions.
“The bye week really helped,” said Taggart. “I was really nervous heading into the game (about Tate). I thought we were really disciplined in not allowing him to run with the ball.”
In total, the Duck defense had seven pass breakups, six tackles for loss, four QB hits, two sacks and two interceptions.
After a year hiatus, the Ducks return to a bowl game and it could not be more welcomed by Coach T, his staff and the players.
“It means a lot. We’re headed in the direction we want to go. It’s really important for the seniors.”
Herbert returned just in time, as Oregon is seeking to end their season in style with a 3-game winning streak. The sophomore from Sheldon completed 14-of-21 attempts for 235 passing yards, a touchdown and an interception. He carried the rock four times for 40 yards and a score.
“Having him back helped,” said Oregon’s head coach. “Not just the offense but the entire team. You saw that this week at practice.”
In total, Oregon churned out 353 rushing yards on 50 team carries (7.1 YPC). The Ducks had five tallies on the ground, including four from their superstar Royce Freeman.
“Every time we hand off to Royce, we expect a touchdown,” Taggart replied. “He’s everything. I’m proud of him and I love him. I’m so appreciative to him for coming back. He does it all for the love of the University of Oregon.”
Entering the game, Arizona’s No. 1 rushing attack in the Pac-12 (No. 3 in the country) was the headline. Especially Tate, who entered the game with the highest yard per carry average (11.6 YPC) in the nation.
Since Pac-12 season began, Tate had not rushed for less than 137 yards (8.1 YPC) in any game this year. Nevertheless, he had not faced anyone like the Pac-12’s No. 2-ranked run defense. Arizona rushed for 171 yards on 45 carries (3.8 YPC) all told.
“They had some success slowing him down,” said Arizona’s head coach Rich Rodriguez. “We didn’t block them well, we didn’t read them well and they did a good job. They were better than us.”
Oregon bottled up Tate for 32 yards on 14 carries. He wasn’t much better in the passing game, completing 18-of-35 attempts for 159 yards, two interceptions and a TD pass. The Duck defense was relentless in their attack of him and it certainly didn’t hurt when the green and yellow’s offense played their part.
“We have a group of young men that really care about each other. We could have easily folded,” Taggart said. “Those guys are so close with one another. Everything in the offseason really paid off. Our guys don’t listen to all that negative stuff. We did so much work at the beginning of the season. It’s great to see. It wasn’t that way when I got here.”
Troy Dye led a sterling performance by the defense with a team-high 11 tackles, six solo and 1.5 TFL. He was one of six players to record seven tackles or more.
“The stats show. He’s never really been held down” said Dye about Khalil Tate.
For the highly-touted Wildcat running game, Oregon embarrassed them by outrushing Arizona 353-171. Freeman and Brooks-James combined to carry 19 times each for a combined 259 rushing yards and four scores.
Herbert looked solid on his first possession. A collective gasp from the stadium erupted when the quarterback tucked the ball to run. Fortunately, the sophomore from Eugene got down just in time.
“During the bye week, doctors told us the bone healed,” replied Taggart. “I wanted him to be comfortable. Our trainer wanted him to be comfortable. Justin is a special kid. Giving him that extra week to prepare was important.”
Arizona scored on their opening drive. It was an 11-play, 83-yard possession that took 4:51 off the clock following their 18-yard scoring outburst by Nick Wilson.
On the next possession, Oregon’s QB dashed 40 yards down the sideline for an eyeopening touchdown run to tie the game, 7-7. It was the longest of his career, alongside his sixth career rushing TD.
“It was a little surprising,” Herbert said with a laugh. “I didn’t see anyone in front of me so I took off and luckily nobody hit me on the way to the end zone.”
The next time the Ducks touched the football, Royce Freeman made history. The senior workhorse concluded Oregon’s 6-play, 46-yard drive with a record-breaking score to place UO ahead 14-7 in the first quarter.
With the 59th touchdown of his career, Freeman passed LaMichael James as UO’s all-time leader. Not to mention, he slid past LaDainian Tomlinson (58) for 10th on college football’s all-time list.
The Ducks possessed a 14-7 lead while driving before Herbert was intercepted. Dane Cruikshank took the pass 64 yards to the house for an impressive run, but he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and the touchdown was negated.
After Arizona was placed at the 15-yard line following their penalty, the Cats only needed three plays to travel 19 yards. Tony Ellison tied the game 14-14 with his 15-yard TD reception from Tate.
Four minutes later, the Wildcats took the lead 21-14 when Wilson rumbled 20 yards through the Duck defense. Arizona moved 59 yards on five plays with just 2:06 taken off the clock.
Oregon responded the only way they know how, quickly. Herbert found his tight end Jacob Breeland who was streaking down the middle of the field with his defender trailing. The 39-yard connection knotted the game, 21-21, midway through the second.
With 3:15 left in the first half, the Ducks drove down the field with little resistance from the defense. Oregon amassed 88 yards in five plays. The possession was highlighted by a ‘backyard’ hook-up between Herbert and Charles Nelson for 46 yards.
“It was really nice to have him (Herbert) back,” said Nelson with a gigantic smile.
On third and long, Herbert made the play of the half when he threw to a double-covered Johnny Johnson III in the end zone. Neither Arizona player turned back for the ball, as the true freshman receiver drew the penalty flag and a fresh set of downs.
The very next play following the Wildcat penalty, the great Freeman galloped 28 yards for his second score of the half and 60th of his illustrious career. The Imperial product tied Ken Simonton for the most total scores from scrimmage in Pac-12 lore.
After Oregon snatched the lead back, defensive back Ugo Amadi jumped a route and nearly intercepted Tate for a pick-six. Nevertheless, Amadi did indeed intercept Tate on the next play to conclude the festivities of the first 30 minutes.
Freeman registered 84 rush yards on 13 carries in the first half, including those two outbursts to the end zone. Overall, the highly-touted Arizona rushing offense amassed just 96 total yards on 23 first-half carries (4.17 YPC).
At the half, Justin Herbert passed for more yards (122) in the first 30 minutes of his return game than the Ducks had thrown for in the last eight quarters combined. Overall, he had 159 total yards and two scores entering the locker room.
“It’s awesome to be back,” said Herbert. “It was a lot of chocolate milk.”
Freeman became the all-time leader in touchdowns from scrimmage in Pac-12 history during the third quarter. Oregon may have achieved their most impressive drive of the season, traveling 94 yards on 10 plays with only four minutes expended off the clock.
“I felt like it took a lot of pressure off me,” Freeman said. “The big guys up front. I felt like I needed to take it upon myself to do a little bit more.”
With his third TD of the night, Freeman secured 61 for his career as the Ducks doubled their advantage of Arizona, 35-21. The tally gave him one more than OSU's Ken Simonton (60).
Arizona's fourth TD of the day was met by a chorus of ‘boos’ following a questionable pass interference call on Thomas Graham Jr. in the end zone. He turned toward the ball, but the officials were not satisfied as flashlights rained down onto the field.
Zach Green rushed in from two yards out to cut the Wildcat deficit in half, 35-28. They needed just 3:09 to move the ball 75 yards on eight plays at the end of the third quarter. Arizona would not score again in the contest.
“There are things I try to learn from,” Herbert said in reference to his time recovering from a fractured collarbone. “I spent a lot of time with Braxton and Taylor. It was a tough situation that Braxton handled really well. He’s a tough kid.”
Aidan Schneider blistered a field goal between the pipes to open the fourth quarter. His sixth, at the time, successful make of the year gave UO a 38-28 lead with less than 15 minutes remaining.
Late in the fourth quarter, Schneider missed an attempt from 37 yards. The Portland native is now 7-of-10 (70 percent) in field goal attempts this year, including a perfect 50-of-50 on extra points.
Maybe the most-creative possession of the game occurred the next time Oregon’s offense took the field. After a little Duck trickery ended with a flea-flicker that Herbert tossed a perfect 50-yard pass to Johnson who inhaled it just one yard shy of the goal line. It was his only catch of the night.
On the next play, Mr. Freeman crossed the goal line for his fourth time in the game and 62nd occasion of his unbelievable career, 45-28. In total, Freeman (58) is now just one rushing score behind Simonton (59) for the most all-time in Pac-12 history.
Tony Brooks-James handled the rock when Freeman needed a break. The junior tailback registered 124 yards on 19 carries (6.5 YPC). TBJ’s longest run went for 28 yards.
Amadi, Henry Mondeaux and La’Mar Winston Jr. each had eight tackles a piece. Meanwhile, Tyree Robinson and Jimmie Swain both recorded seven tackles.
As the game was drawing to a close, cornerback Ty Griffin intercepted Tate on his final pass attempt of the contest. For the redshirt senior, it was his first career college interception.
Penalties were the only phase of the game the Ducks didn’t have working for them on Saturday evening. The Ducks lost a total of 117 yards on 12 penalties.
“We have to be smart,” said Taggart.
Nevertheless, the offense made up for penalties going 8-for-13 on third down.
Freeman finished with 135 yards on 19 carries, including his four end zone exclamation points!
Freshman back Darrian Felix secured 39 yards on four carries and Jaylon Redd added a 23-yard scamper, as well.
Dillon Mitchell had six catches for 25 yards, while Nelson led the team in total receiving yards (74) after his four receptions.
Wilson amassed 73 yards on 17 carries, including two scores for the Cats. J.J. Taylor added 55 yards on 10 carries, as the Arizona running game never left the garage.
Ellison led the Wildcat pass-catchers with six snags for 52 yards.
Brenden’s brother, Colin Schooler led everyone with a game-high 12 tackles, nine solo and three TFL.
Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles concluded second on his team with 10 tackles, five solo.
Next up for Oregon (6-5, 3-5) is their final regular season game of the 2017 campaign. The Ducks will be looking to avenge last years 34-24 loss to the Beavers (1-10, 0-8). Kickoff is slated for 4:00 p.m. PT at Autzen. You can watch The Civil War on ESPN2.