What if the Ducks’ success boiled down to a single play? Let me take you back to a moment that changed the trajectory of Oregon football.
It was the fourth quarter. No. 6 Oregon trailed No. 8 Wisconsin 27-21 in the Rose Bowl game. Quarterback Justin Herbert already had two first-half rushing touchdowns but struggled to find his passing rhythm.
The Ducks had just recovered a fumble after forcing the ball loose from Badgers’ receiver Danny Davis and were positioned on Wisconsin’s 30-yard line. Herbert hiked the ball to setup a running play, with CJ Verdell heading left. But Herbert faked the handoff and ran right, avoiding a diving defender and before heading toward the sideline.
“QUARTERBACK IN THE CLEAR!” Chris Fowler of ESPN shouted, as Herbert raced toward the corner of the end-zone. TOUCHDOWN!
My goodness! I remember the play like it was yesterday, and it still gives me chills. The Ducks struggled the entire game to establish a passing game. Even though the Badger’s had controlled the time of possession (Wisconsin, 38:03 and Oregon, 20:57) and led in total yards (322 to 209), Oregon’s defense had forced four turnovers, three of which led to scoring opportunities.
It was a huge win for Mario Cristobal‘s program on the national stage. And it changed EVERYTHING.
All of a sudden, boasting a Pac-12 Championship victory over Utah and a hard-fought Rose Bowl win, Oregon became (and still is) the hottest team in the West. The Ducks finished the regular season ranked No. 5 in both the AP and Coaches polls.
And even a global pandemic banning in-person contact couldn’t stop Oregon’s recruiting success. In June, the Ducks snagged commitments from Troy Franklin and Kyron Ware-Hudson, two top-rated, all-American wide receivers.
Plus, a chuck-wagon full of four-star recruits, including offensive tackles Jackson Light and Bram Walden, tight end Moliki Matavao, running back Seven McGee and linebacker Keith Brown. And that’s not mentioning five-star linebackers Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell.
Do all of those high-profile recruits come to Eugene if Oregon had lost the Rose Bowl? If Herbert hadn’t scored three rushing touchdowns, (including the game-winner) is Cristobal on the hot seat? Is the program still projected to win the Pac-12 again? Does Penei Sewell win the Outland Trophy? Does offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead replace Marcus Arroyo? Or does Arroyo stay another season to pad his resume?
Following his Rose Bowl performance, Herbert transformed into a quarterback who appeared ready for the NFL. Herbert continued his momentum with a stellar week in the Senior Bowl, bumping his NFL draft stock into the top ten. But does Herbert go No. 6 overall to the Los Angeles Chargers without that momentum?
It could be argued that much of Oregon’s off-season success on the recruiting trail rests upon that Rose Bowl trophy—a game that was sealed with one play. A seemingly endless stream of momentum has vaulted the Ducks into the national conversation, with a level of excitement not experienced since the Chip Kelly era.
Where does Oregon go from here? Nothing is certain, but it sure feels they are headed in the right direction!
San Diego, California
Top photo credit: Eugene Johnson
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