EUGENE — A year ago, Oregon was on the losing end of a 34-24 Civil War at Reser Stadium in Corvallis.
After the game, a rain-soaked coach Mark Helfrich addressed the media in the basement at Gill Coliseum, and it felt like the end of an era.
The Ducks had hit rock bottom.
Fast forward to Saturday at Autzen Stadium, and the Ducks put an emphatic finish to their first regular season under coach Willie Taggart with a 69-10 drubbing of Oregon State.
“Tonight, we just played really well on both sides of the ball,” said quarterback Justin Herbert, who threw for 251 yards and three touchdowns. “It makes your job a lot easier when the defense holds them to 10 points.”
The Ducks finish the regular season with a 7-5 record and now wait for a bowl invitation. Earlier in the week, USA TODAY projected Oregon to compete in the Independence Bowl, set for Dec. 27 in Shreveport, Louisiana.
One question for the near future is whether Royce Freeman will play for the Ducks in the bowl game, or whether he will leave early to prepare for the NFL Draft.
“I haven’t really had a chance to think about that yet,” Freeman said. “I’ll watch the film and just rely on the people close to me to help me make a decision. I haven’t thought that far yet.”
On Saturday, Freeman rushed for 122 yards and two touchdowns to become the all-time Pac-12 leader with 60 career rushing touchdowns, passing former Oregon State player Ken Simonton.
“I think it means I’m kind of old now,” Freeman said. “It’s just a tribute to the offensive line. It’s not a sole mission. It’s not a job I can do all by myself.”
No matter where or whom Oregon plays in a bowl game, this season has been a success.
When asked what he will remember most about his first season in Eugene, Taggart joked, “We’ll remember all the wins, forget all the losing.”
Taggart went on to say that he’ll remember how his players rallied together and kept fighting for each other despite the adversity they faced.
Oregon jumped out to a 4-1 start this season with Justin Herbert at quarterback. But after his collarbone was broken against California, the Ducks turned to Braxton Burmeister, and they struggled.
With Burmeister behind center, Oregon went 1-4, with losses to Washington State, Stanford, UCLA and Washington.
When Herbert returned, the Ducks finished the regular season strong with wins against Arizona and Oregon State.
“During that losing streak, we could have easily gave up and went the other way. But our guys didn’t do that,” Taggart said. “They stuck together, and that helped.”
When Taggart first arrived on campus last December, he preached about how the players need to care about each other and play for each other, something they didn’t do last season when they finished 4-8.
After the game Saturday, Taggart was pleased with how his team lived up to that expectation this season.
“I can honestly say that all of these men care about each other,” Taggart said. “And that played a big role in our success this year.”