PULLMAN – Justin Herbert hadn’t grown out his hair, and certainly not his arm, the most recent time the Oregon Ducks visited Washington State.
It was 2016, Herbert’s true freshman season, and Oregon’s quarterback depth chart had become so muddled that late in the fourth quarter of an Oct. 1 game at Martin Stadium, with the Ducks trailing by three touchdowns and on their way to a third consecutive loss, coach Mark Helfrich decided to pull the plug on the Dakota Prukop project and get a head start on the Herbert experiment.
Helfrich failed to meet the standard Oregon had set in previous years under Chip Kelly and was fired after that season ended. The Ducks’ once-confident march turned into a slow waddle and Oregon, in a span of two years, went from a Rose Bowl champion to a last-place finisher in the Pac-12 North.
One of the more consequential decisions Helfrich made in his final year as Oregon’s coach – for the short and the long term – was giving the keys of the Ducks’ offense to an 18-year-old freshman. On a brisk night in Pullman, Herbert completed his first two passes – the second was a 63-yarder – and eventually rushed for a 4-yard touchdown to cap his first drive as a college football player.
Now a commanding junior whose arm power and play-extending ability have NFL scouts salivating, Herbert could become the first pick of the 2019 draft – something even 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, the most accomplished player in school history, couldn’t attain during his tenure with the Ducks.
He’s the first, second and third thing the 25th-ranked Cougars should be worried about when No. 12 Oregon visits for a highly anticipated Pac-12 North matchup Saturday at Martin Stadium (4:30 p.m., Fox 28).
“He manages the offense, does a good job managing the offense, dealing the ball off,” WSU coach Mike Leach said Tuesday. “They run it a lot and he’s kind of deceptive, so he really just runs the unit well, I think.”
The Cougars haven’t seen an Oregon quarterback of Herbert’s caliber since they last lost to the Ducks in 2014, when Mariota was running the show for Helfrich’s team. WSU brings a three-game win streak against the Ducks into Saturday, but in two of those contests, the Cougars managed to, er, duck the Oregon starter at the time.
In 2015, Jeff Lockie, a longtime backup, was the replacement for Eastern Washington grad transfer Vernon Adams. The Cougars won 45-38 in overtime and Adams returned from injury the following week, leading Oregon to wins in six of its next seven games.
Prukop started for the Ducks against WSU in 2016. In hindsight, Oregon might wish it had turned to Herbert earlier in the game, because the freshman took the reins the remainder of the season and threw 19 touchdowns and four interceptions.
The grace period for WSU against Duck QBs continued last season. A 33-10 win at Oregon was the first of five straight DNPs for Herbert, dealing with a collarbone injury. His fill-in was Braxton Burmeister, a true freshman who struggled to move the offense, passing for 145 yards while throwing a pair of interceptions and only one TD.
But the Cougars won’t steal a fourth consecutive win from the Ducks without finally going through a premier Oregon signal-caller.
“He can make the throws, but he can also extend the plays with his legs,” WSU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “And then he’s sitting back there with a tailback that’s a really good downhill runner. So they make you defend all the positions on the field.”
Herbert is widely considered the nation’s top draft-eligible QB. Former Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, now a Pac-12 Networks analyst, recently went on record telling CBSSports.com he believes the current Ducks starter “is a better pro” than Mariota.
Only WSU starter Gardner Minshew, running the Cougars’ pass-happy Air Raid, has thrown more touchdowns this season than Herbert, although the Ducks QB is the Pac-12 leader in QB rating and yards per attempt.
The Cougars got a brief glimpse of an undeveloped, less-experienced version of Herbert two years ago, but didn’t see the need to review game film of him last year with the knowledge that Burmeister was starting.
“He’s got a good arm. He’s athletic,” WSU defensive lineman Nick Begg said. “But we’ve seen quarterbacks like him, and we’re just going to treat him like we always do. But we’ve just got to contain him and put pressure on him, and try to make him force bad throws.”
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