CORVALLIS — A word to the Holiday Bowl, the RedBox Bowl or whichever mid-tier bowl game intends to unroll the red carpet for the Oregon Ducks:
Those promotional materials you had planned? The ones featuring a 6-foot-6, NFL-bound starting quarterback? Maybe hold off on those, at least for now.
Nothing against Braxton Burmeister, but he’s not the guy you’d put on the cover of a commemorative game program. For Oregon fans, the mere mention of that name brings up bad memories of last season, when Justin Herbert went down and the Ducks fell apart.
Well, it was a disturbingly familiar scene Friday at Reser Stadium: Herbert clutching his collarbone, leaving the locker room in a cart, then returning to the sideline in street clothes. Oregon had a comfortable lead at halftime, but even against the foundering Beavers, you wondered if Herbert’s injury might be enough to trigger a collapse.
The Ducks delivered their answer in the second half. It wasn’t sexy, and it won’t sell many travel packages for San Diego or San Francisco. But for Mario Cristobal, it was nirvana.
“A year ago when we didn’t have him, it seemed like we fell apart,” Cristobal said. “Today we rose to the occasion.”
The Ducks ran Oregon State into the ground, rushing for 392 yards in a 55-15 demolition. They ran the ball on 35 of their 38 second-half snaps and averaged 7.2 yards per pop.
CJ Verdell finished with 187 yards and four touchdowns. Travis Dye ran for 199 and two scores. Burmeister handed off until his arms got tired. And the Ducks proved that, at least on this particular day, there’s life after Justin Herbert.
“Braxton came in there and he didn’t flinch,” Verdell said. “He came in there and did what he was supposed to do as the second guy up.”
The Ducks got some help from Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith, whose decision to call a reverse flea flicker in the driving rain backfired in spectacular fashion. They also got help from the OSU defense, which ranks No. 125 in the FBS against the run.
What I’m saying is, Oregon’s bowl opponent won’t make it this easy. But if the Ducks do have to play their final game without Herbert, Friday’s second half gave them something to build on.
“At halftime the coaches came up to me and Travis and told us, ‘Justin’s gone. We’re going to run the ball, and you guys have to finish it off for us,’” Verdell said. “That’s what we did.”
We knew at some point the Ducks would have to find out what they have without Herbert. We just didn’t think it would happen this soon, halfway through the Civil War and with a bowl game still to come.
Cristobal said Herbert would undergo further tests once he returns to Eugene, but there’s hope his injury isn’t as severe as the broken collarbone that sidelined him for six weeks last year. Herbert wasn’t wearing a sling on the sideline and walked to the locker room without obvious discomfort after the game.
Go ahead, hope that Herbert recovers in time for the Holiday Bowl or the RedBox Bowl. We’d all love to see him play another game in an Oregon uniform. But also, know this: If there’s any doubt, any sliver of concern related to Herbert’s throwing shoulder, the smart thing is to skip the bowl game and concentrate on his future.
If nothing else, another injury scare should make Herbert pause and consider everything he has at stake by playing another year of college football. Maybe the injury turns out to be nothing, and he’ll be taking snaps on the first day of Oregon’s bowl practice.
If it’s more than nothing — even slightly more than nothing — Herbert will have to ask if the benefits of returning outweigh the risks of another injury.
I’m not telling the guy what to do. It’s his decision. Whatever he decides, it’s time for the Ducks to turn an eye toward the future.
Specifically, they need to figure out what they have in Tyler Shough, the freshman who shared backup reps with Burmeister this season. I would have liked to see Shough get a few more snaps, but it says something that Cristobal trusted Burmeister to handle the ball in sloppy conditions.
Give Burmeister credit for not throwing in the towel after the Ducks put him in an impossible situation last year. He may not be a Pac-12-caliber quarterback, but if Herbert is out, the bowl game will be another chance for him to prove otherwise.
“Honestly, I’m extremely confident in myself,” Burmeister said. “I knew what I could do, and I still know what I can do.”
I’m not sure we know what the Ducks can do without Herbert, but there’s going to be a time when they have to find out.
That time could be right now.