ARLINGTON, TEXAS — Justin Herbert’s voice cracked in the middle of his postgame autopsy after No. 11 Oregon’s championship dreams died on opening night.
The 6-foot-6, 237-pound senior quarterback emerged from the morgue-like locker room, stood in front of the cameras and microphones, and was asked pointedly how gutting it was to watch helplessly from the sideline as true freshman counterpart Bo Nix marched Auburn down for the winning score.
Especially after the Ducks’ offense had squandered chance after chance to salt Saturday’s critical game against No. 16 Auburn away.
Bo Nix threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Seth Williams with nine seconds left as the Ducks lost to the Tigers in stunning fashion, 27-21, in front of a crowd of 60,662 at AT&T Stadium.
“Yes, it's tough,” Herbert said after passing for 242 yards and a touchdown on a night when Nix won despite completing 13 of 31 passes with two interceptions. “But I think we've got a great defense and I had complete faith in them. Unfortunately, it didn't go our way, but we're going to get back at practice tomorrow and get ready for our next opponent.”
Herbert’s Hail Mary at the buzzer was not answered — it actually sailed deep out of the back of the end zone — after the Ducks coughed up a 21-6 lead over the final 20 minutes.
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal was once again answering questions about clock management after a series of head-scratching timeouts and early snaps.
“Very different scenario,” Cristobal said when reminded about the nightmarish Stanford game last September when the Ducks snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Duck fans were feeling dreadful deja vu as they exited the palatial “Jerry World” with another scarring memory.
Oregon, which lost 22-19 to Auburn as time expired in the BCS national championship game nine seasons ago, fell to Ohio State in the inaugural College Football Playoff title game five seasons ago at AT&T Stadium.
“For the most part .... we did what we needed to do for 60 minutes,” senior linebacker Troy Dye said after leading Oregon with 15 tackles, including 10 solo takedowns. “Like I said earlier in the week, if we did that, hopefully we came out with the (win). …
“But apparently it didn't work out that way. So we have to play harder next time.”
In the fourth quarter, Herbert lay on the artificial turf for a few tense moments after getting his left knee bumped while completing a 4-yard pass to tight end Jacob Breeland on third-and-5.
Redshirt freshman Tyler Shough came in to take the critical fourth-and-1 snap at the Auburn 41. Cristobal called timeout and put Herbert back in, but the referee noted that “a timeout does not buy him back in.”
After another timeout, Shough trotted back out and handed off to CJ Verdell, who was stuffed behind the line of scrimmage.
“The wrong personnel was in, and when we got the personnel straightened out, (the players) weren’t quite sure as to who was going to do what,” Cristobal explained. “But we don’t blame them. We take it as a coaching staff. That’s on us.”
Would the Ducks have run the same play had Herbert been in?
Oregon’s defense responded by forcing a three-and-out, but Herbert was sacked moments later. The Tigers regained possession with 2:14 remaining.
On fourth-and-3 from the Oregon 47, Nix dove for a first down. The officials measured and the crafty signal-caller made the line to gain by the nose of the football.
Nix hit Williams for a 13-yard gain with 16 seconds left before his game-winning touchdown pass.
“Our locker room is really excited,” said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who ran off the field with a Cheshire cat grin on his face. “Real proud of those guys. Found a way to win, especially when we didn’t play our best. But you’ve got to give Oregon a lot of credit for that.”
The Ducks, who are running out of healthy wide receivers, overcame their own adversity while also doing their part to keep hope alive for Auburn.
In the third quarter, after co-starters Verdell and Travis Dye limped to the bench with injuries, redshirt sophomore running back Darrian Felix scampered for a 6-yard touchdown to give the Ducks a 21-6 cushion.
Nix, the five-star recruit and son of former Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix, shook off the two first-half interceptions and threw an 11-yard touchdown to Eli Stove to get the Tigers within one score (21-13).
After a three-and-out by Oregon, with Herbert inexplicably handing off on third-and-7, Auburn started to push the Ducks’ wilting defense around in the fourth quarter.
Backup quarterback Joey Gatewood’s 1-yard touchdown plunge — the “Cam Newton play” in Auburn’s playbook — capped a eight-play, 69-yard drive. The Tigers lined up for a 2-point conversion but opted to kick an extra point after a false start penalty, which left the Ducks clinging to a 21-20 lead with 9:48 remaining.
“I like the play, obviously,” said Gatewood, who a 6-5 redshirt freshman.
Oregon led 14-6 at the intermission after both offenses squandered scoring opportunities.
After officials overturned a touchdown run by Herbert, whose knee was shown touching at the 1-yard line on the 60-yard wide video board, Verdell plunged in for the game’s first score on fourth-and-goal.
The Ducks had a chance to seize control early, but redshirt freshman Bryan Addison dropped a touchdown in the back of the end zone.
True freshman Camden Lewis then missed a 20-yard field goal on his first career attempt to give the Tigers some momentum.
Auburn cut the deficit to 7-3 with a 40-yard field goal by Anders Carlson with 3:17 remaining in the first quarter.
Herbert, under duress, threw a 20-yard jump ball into the end zone, which 6-foot-6, 246-pound redshirt freshman tight end Spencer Webb came down with for a touchdown to give the Ducks a 14-3 lead.
Jevon Holland set the offense up in the red zone with an electrifying 81-yard punt return, the longest in a collegiate game at AT&T Stadium.
Then Herbert fumbled after running into Verdell in the backfield, and Auburn’s Markaviest Bryant returned the turnover 83 yards to set up an Auburn field goal.
“We had a lot of opportunities to execute and we didn’t do what we wanted to do,” Herbert said. “We kind of shot ourselves in the foot a couple times. But I thought the defense played really well, and I know what type of team we have going forward.”
The Ducks appear to be a solid Pac-12 team, perhaps even a Rose Bowl contender, but it appears their national championship dreams have once again died at AT&T Stadium.