Eugene- All it took was one series. With a large lead in the 3rd quarter Saturday at Autzen Stadium, Cristobal decided, as well he should have, to give starting quarterback Justin Herbert a rest, if nothing else than to prevent the possibility of an unnecessary injury in a game that was all but decided.
Braxton Burmeister, the sophomore, entered in as the next man up, having presumably earned 2nd string duties by virtue of his time with Oregon last year in which he was called upon to fill in for Herbert while Justin recovered from a broken collarbone sustained at the end of September. All Burmeister needed to do was manage the game and keep Oregon’s offense moving. He completed his first pass to a cheer of encouragement from the yellow-clad fans, then, he reverted to what fans had become all too familiar with last fall. His next pass was nowhere near his intended target, and the following was almost (and should have been) intercepted. Oregon’s offense was off the field that quickly, and Bowling Green capitalized by scoring again. Cristobal wasn’t taking any more chances; Herbert finished the rest of the game.
Again, it was an eerily familiar sight to Duck fans. Burmeister did not look comfortable in the pocket. He looked overwhelmed. He looked scared. And unfortunately this was against a team that was severely outmatched talent-wise and really should not have posed any real threat to him, especially operating behind one of the best offensive lines in the conference that is coached by an offensive line guru in Cristobal.
Time has been given. Granted, Burmeister was thrown into the proverbial fire last year as a true freshman. But he had five full games and the weeks of accompanying practices in between to adjust and to learn. There would be rave reviews about his performances in practice but when game day came he would look confused and timid, often tucking and running before the pocket had collapsed or lofting passes downfield that went far astray from their targets.
A drop in overall productivity is expected for any team that has to insert their 2nd-string QB as the starter for a length of time, particularly if that QB is a freshman. But the difference in Oregon when Herbert was under center as compared to Burmeister was abnormally drastic. With Herbert Oregon averaged almost 50 points a game, with Burmeister they averaged 15. With Herbert on the field Oregon was 6-2. With Burmeister they were 1-4. And those losses during that 1-4 stretch weren’t just losses. The games were not even competitive, Oregon was embarrassed every time.
Again you will hear the argument “but he was a true freshman!” Indeed, but Herbert was also a true freshman the year prior. Granted, he baptized by fire making his first start against College Football Playoff-bound Washington, who hammered Oregon into submission. But the next game Herbert tied the UO record for touchdown passes in a game. The following week, he tied the UO record for passing yards in a game. In 2007, an unprecedented rash of QB injuries eventually forced true freshman and 5th-string quarterback Justin Roper into action in the Civil War in the midst of a brutal winter storm. Roper tossed 3 touchdown passes and nearly pulled off the comeback against Oregon State. Then, given some time to adjust, he torched current UO defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt’s South Florida Bulls in the Sun Bowl. The following season another bizarre string of QB injuries forced true freshman Darron Thomas into action against Boise State. And Thomas lobbed 3 touchdown passes while also nearly bringing Oregon back from a large deficit.
The point is that if you’re going to be a quarterback, even a backup quarterback, for a Division 1 college team in a power 5 conference; you need to be able to perform to a certain level. It is and should be expected. Whatever you did in high school goes out the window, as does whatever you did in practice. When it’s game time you need to be able to make more good decisions than poor ones, make more good passes than duds. It’s why you’re where you are. Cristobal is changing the way Oregon approaches games offensively. The offensive lines are going to become more and more mammoth and will play an increased role in quarterback protection. Anyone operating under center needs to trust them and his own playmaking abilities. If Herbert needs a break or can’t go, it’s imperative that whoever goes in for him be able to manage the game and keep Oregon moving and scoring. Obviously the preference is to redshirt highly-touted freshman Tyler Shough but if push comes to shove and you need someone other than Herbert to move the ball through the air for Oregon do you continue to use a young man who has proven so far that he struggles mightily with that task or do you give Shough the chance to prove himself?
You can’t always count on your starting QB to be available 100% of the time; it’s unfortunate but an absolute truth. If a time comes when Herbert can’t go, is Cristobal willing to take a chance on something new or accept the inevitable giant dip in productivity?
Pac-12 play begins in less than 3 weeks. Time to make the call.