Herbert needed against Arizona’s dynamic Tate
After meeting in the Pac-12 championship game three years ago, Oregon and Arizona tripped at the top of the stairs and tumbled cleats over helmets into the conference basement.
The Ducks went 9-4 in 2015 and 4-8 in 2016, including a 2-7 record in Pac-12 play (last in the North Division).
The Wildcats went 7-6 in 2015 and 3-9 in 2016, including a 1-8 record in Pac-12 play (last in the South Division).
Suddenly, the future of both programs looks bright again with the return of Justin Herbert and the emergence of Khalil Tate. The dynamic and productive quarterbacks are both expected to be in the starting lineup when Oregon hosts Arizona on Saturday at Autzen Stadium (4 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
If the two sophomore signal-callers could combine their respective 2017 seasons, the numbers would be strong enough to win the Heisman Trophy.
Herbert, who reportedly has been medically cleared to play for the first time since suffering a fractured collarbone on Sept. 30, completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 1,264 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions during the first five games.
The 6-foot-6, 225-pound former Sheldon High standout also ran for three touchdowns in coach Willie Taggart’s spread offense. Herbert was injured while scampering for a seven-yard score in the first quarter against California.
“I’m sure it’s tough, especially to go from last year to really leading this team,” backup quarterback Taylor Alie said of Herbert having to sit out and heal while the Ducks’ 4-1 start turned into a 5-5 overall record. “It’s got to be really tough for him to not watch our team produce how we should.
“But it’s just more fuel in the fire for him to do better, get back and heal up.”
Tate, despite not starting during the first month of the season, has rushed for 1,293 yards and 11 touchdowns. He is averaging 161.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks second in the FBS behind Stanford running back Bryce Love (180.2 ypg).
Since coach Rich Rodriguez turned the offense over to Tate — who has also completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 998 yards with eight touchdowns and six interceptions — the Wildcats (7-3, 5-2) are 5-1.
“It’s like preparing for Michael Vick, yeah,” Oregon linebacker La’Mar Winston said. “We’re seeing something that we really haven’t seen out of a lot of these quarterbacks that we’ve faced. It will be fun to play against something new and different.”
Tate, who has five rushes over 70 yards, will be one of several elite runners on the field.
Arizona tailbacks J.J. Taylor and Nick Wilson have combined for 1,160 yards and eight touchdowns. During last week’s 49-28 win over Oregon State, Tate (206 yards), Taylor (129) and Wilson (101) all rushed for more than 100 yards as the Wildcats finished with a school-record 534 yards on the ground.
“They pretty much run an offense where it’s triple-option and their quarterback is freaky fast,” Oregon safety Brady Breeze said. “So it’s hard because you have to worry about tackling all three of them. It’s not like, ‘Oh we can focus on the quarterback.’
“We also have to focus on the running backs because they’re both freaky fast, too.”
Oregon’s Royce Freeman — who is one of 11 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s best running back — has rushed for 1,218 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
The 6-foot, 238-pound senior broke the school’s career rushing record earlier this season and has 5,364 rushing yards, 6,158 all-purpose yards and 58 career touchdowns with two more games remaining at Autzen.
“I think Coach Taggart and the staff will do a good job of moving us forward and getting prepared for the week,” Freeman said after rushing for 122 yards during an otherwise inept performance by Oregon’s offense in the 38-3 loss at Washington.
Oregon’s defense ranks 89th in points allowed (30.1 ppg) and 49th in yards allowed (377.7 ypg). Arizona is 99th (31.9) and 116th (459.2 ypg) in those statistical categories among FBS teams.
“I don’t sleep a whole lot anyway,” defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt said of preparing for Tate and the Wildcats. “Pretty good team.”
The Ducks can still double last season’s win total if they defeat Arizona, Oregon State and a bowl opponent.
The Wildcats, who are second in the South Division after receiving the fewest votes of any team in the Pac-12 preseason poll, can win 10 games if they post wins over the Ducks, rival Arizona State and their bowl opponent.
With Herbert and Tate returning to lead these programs, Oregon and Arizona will enter the 2018 season with much greater expectations.
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @rgduckfootball . Email firstname.lastname@example.org .