EUGENE — It’s amazing how much one player can make a difference.
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert returned from a broken collarbone Saturday night to lead the Ducks to a 48-28 victory against Arizona.
Suddenly, Oregon had a vertical passing game again, and that allowed the Ducks to utilize all of their offensive weapons.
Herbert passed for 235 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Wildcats, but more importantly, his ability to throw downfield opened up the running game for Royce Freeman, who had 135 yards and found the end zone four times to become Oregon’s all-time leader with 62 career touchdowns.
The Ducks’ offense looked like the Ducks’ offense again.
“I feel like it took a lot of pressure off of me,” Freeman said. “It enabled us to move a little faster in the tempo and keep the defense guessing.”
VIDEO RECAP: Herbert back, Ducks beat Arizona
For Herbert, it was great to be back on the field.
“It was a lot of fun just to be back there,” said Herbert, who also had a 40-yard rushing touchdown. “We have great guys on this team and it’s so much fun to be a part of this thing.”
Oregon fans saw a glimpse Saturday of what this season could have been for the Ducks had Herbert not suffered his injury against California in the fifth week of the season.
Oregon improved to 5-1 this season in Herbert starts, with the only loss coming Sept. 23 at Arizona State, 37-35.
Lacking quarterback depth, after Herbert went down with the injury, the Ducks turned to true freshman Braxton Burmeister, and went 1-4 through the middle of their schedule.
Burmeister threw for a total of 320 yards in his five starts, and Herbert had 235 on Saturday alone.
With the victory Saturday, the Ducks are bowl eligible at 6-5, with the regular season finale — the Civil War against Oregon State — set for 4 p.m. on Nov. 25.
“(Being bowl eligible) means a lot, it shows the progress of our football team and we’re headed in the direction we want to go,” Oregon coach Willie Taggart said. “It’s good for these seniors. It was important that we get bowl eligible for our seniors and let those guys leave here the right way.”
If the Ducks can win out, they will finish 8-5 and carry momentum into the first full offseason of the Taggart era.
Ever since he first arrived in Eugene, Taggart has emphasized the importance of the quarterback on an entire program.
As a former college quarterback himself, Taggart believes that a quarterback must be the inspirational leader for the entire team, not just the offense.
That was on display on Saturday.
Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate came into the game with Heisman Trophy hype, and the Ducks limited him to 159 passing yards, one passing touchdown and 32 rushing yards. Oregon also intercepted Tate twice.
“I think having Justin back inspired our entire football team to go out and play the way we’re capable of doing,” Taggart said. “I thought (the defense was) really disciplined. They did a good job of making (Tate) give the ball to the running back and not allow him to run with the football. Having (Herbert) back helped tremendously, not just our offense, but our entire football team.”