BERKELEY, Calif. — Justin Herbert has played the lead role in Oregon’s version of The Bad News Bears two years running.
In 2016, Herbert threw six touchdown passes to tie the program single-game record during his first road start here. The true freshman left the field in tears after throwing an interception in double overtime to seal the Ducks’ disheartening 52-49 defeat in what turned out to be Mark Helfrich’s final season.
In 2017, Oregon dominated California 45-24 at Autzen Stadium to get the Wille Taggart era off to a flying 4-1 start. The celebration was muted with Herbert suffering a fractured collarbone while running for a touchdown, an injury which caused the rising star to miss the next five games while the Ducks went 1-4.
Now a healthy Herbert is determined to lead Mario Cristobal to his first Pac-12 win as head coach when No. 19 Oregon faces No. 24 Cal on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium (7:30 p.m., Fox Sports 1).
“I think sports in general are a good way of dealing with adversity and loss,” Herbert said, referring to the Ducks’ second-half collapse during last week’s 38-31 overtime loss to No. 7 Stanford. “Just being around other sports and being around the game for so long, you’ve got to learn and pick up on things. I think we’ve done a great of coming back out to practice and having a good day.”
The Ducks (3-1, 0-1) had only themselves to blame after a bad snap by center Jake Hanson, a last-minute fumble by running back CJ Verdell and soft defense with the game on the line led to 17 unanswered points by Stanford during an improbable comeback.
“They were dragging the first day, which is expected. When you invest a lot into something, it’s going to hurt,” Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt said of relinquishing a 24-7 lead in the second half. “It’s going to hurt everybody, and that’s the way it should be if you invest. If you don’t invest, you don’t hurt as much.”
Oregon is seeking its first road win over a ranked opponent since Herbert connected with Darren Carrington for a last-second touchdown to stun No. 11 Utah 30-28 on Nov. 19, 2016, in Salt Lake City.
The Ducks were 1-4 on the road last season under Taggart and also lost the Las Vegas Bowl in Cristobal’s first game as coach during a 7-6 finish.
“We have a lot to prove to ourselves as a football team,” Cristobal said. “We feel we haven’t played our best football yet and we still haven’t played a full complete game yet.”
The Bears (3-0, 0-0), who are ranked for the first time since 2015 and defeated No. 20 BYU on the road during nonconference play, are determined to be a factor in the rugged North Division race in Justin Wilcox’s second season as head coach.
Oregon leads the Pac-12 in rushing defense (75.5 ypg) and is 28th nationally in total defense (326.8 ypg). Cal is second nationally in interceptions (7) and 16th in total defense (302.3 ypg).
“Coach Leavitt, with his second year, has really made a statement. I think the same thing with Cal,” Oregon left guard Shane Lemieux said. “The first year they were pretty good, but now they’ve got one recruiting class in and they’ve got another year to learn the defense scheme-wise.”
The Herbert-led Ducks lead the Pac-12 in scoring (46.5 ppg) and are second in yards per game (508.3). The Bears, who have played three quarterbacks this season, are sixth in the conference in scoring (30.0 ppg) and ninth in total offense (382.3 ypg).
“To beat Cal at their place you have to go in there and play one heck of a game,” Leavitt said. “We’ll have to play the best game we’ve played all year to win. We know that. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
Oregon has won eight of the last nine meetings in the series, but the lone defeat was a memorable one for Herbert and his offensive line.
“”That really showed that Justin Herbert was going to really shine. I think that was a defining moment for his career,” Lemieux said. “He was really sad. Especially back then, Justin Herbert, everyone says he’s quiet, he was really quiet back then. So he was taking it all on himself. …
“Seeing his progression from then to now is insane, off the field and on. He’s a leader on the field, and off the field he’s the most talkative person now with the O-line.”
Now it’s time for the Ducks to walk the walk.
Another Pac-12 loss would knock Oregon out of the Pac-12 race before the end of September and would make for a long bye week with favorite Washington set to visit Autzen Stadium in two weeks.
“We’re going to stick by our players and make sure we’re galvanizing the team,” Cristobal said of responding to the gut-wrenching collapse against Stanford. “I think sometimes games like this do that for you. You learn a painful lesson in a painful manner that should, not only motivate you, but also just really bring out the best in you as a true competitor.”