The game was billed as a showdown of the Pac-12’s top two Heisman Trophy candidates and throughout much of it Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert looked like he would get the best of Stanford and last year’s finalist, running back Bryce Love.
But in perhaps a fitting conclusion to a zany day in college football, it was Stanford’s K.J. Costello who made the biggest plays down the stretch, leading the Cardinal overtime win after trailing at the half 24-7.
Costello completed 19 of 26 passes on the night for 327 yards and a sparkling three touchdowns against zero interceptions. While not as gifted as Oregon’s Herbert - the top rated quarterback on my personal Big Board - Costello was certainly clutch, delivering strikes to his massive pass-catchers, including two touchdowns to 6-3, 225 pound wideout JJ Arcega-Whiteside and a 23-yarder in overtime that was first tipped and then secured by 6-7, 240 pound tight end Colby Parkinson.
While Costello (and Love, who rushed for 89 yards and a touchdown on 19 attempts) got the last laugh, much of the game felt like a coronation for Herbert, who dazzled early and often with his pinpoint accuracy.
Just how good was Herbert? Consider that when regulation ended, he had completed 25 of 27 passes, good for a 92.3% completion percentage which would have set a new single game Oregon record, topping the mark held by Kellen Clemens (88.2%), set back in 2003.
Unfortunately for he and the rabid Ducks fans in Autzen Stadium, however, Herbert completed just one of his six passes in overtime as Stanford ratcheted up the physicality on Oregon’s smaller receivers, leading to some controversial breakups, including the last toss of the game - a drag across the middle intended for Brendan Schooler - which was tipped by cornerback Alijah Holder and then intercepted by fellow corner Alameen Murphy.
There likely will be plenty of hot-takes pinning suggesting that Herbert choked as the game tightened.
In reality, his passes were just as accurate in the extra period, including a 30-yard strike on his first play that bounced off the shoulder pads of a Stanford defender who appeared to be interfering with Herbert’s favorite target, Dillon Mitchell.
Herbert ultimately completed 26 of 33 passes for 346 yards and both one touchdown and interception. He also rushed for another 35 yards.
Those who did not stay up to watch Saturday’s nail-biter might pass off Herbert’s flashy numbers as simply a by-product of what has long been one of college football’s most explosive offenses.
That would be a mistake.
Unlike when Clemens, Marcus Mariota and others peppered the field with quick screens and dump-offs to backs under former coaches Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich, however, most of the throws Herbert attempted under new head coach Mario Cristobal traveled at least 10 yards in the air and challenged tight windows, a function of a much more traditional pro-style offense.
He was particularly effective on timing routes and down the seam, with the 6-5, 225 pound redshirt junior demonstrating an ideal blend of velocity and touch. Herbert also impressed with his downfield vision and pocket mobility, extending plays with his feet, including improvising on a critical fourth down play late in the game that ultimately led to an Oregon touchdown.
Herbert's coronation seemed secure until a critical lost fumble by CJ Verdell with just 51 seconds remaining gave Stanford new life.
As he did all night long, Costello was at his best when the Cardinal needed him most, delivering throws to Parkinson, Arcega-Whiteside and Love to put kicker Jet Toner in position to nail the game-tying field goal and send the game into overtime, silencing the crowd.
While the loss certainly stings for Herbert and the Ducks, his stock with NFL scouts is secure and may even rise after the mostly scintillating performance. In my opinion, there is not a quarterback potentially eligible for the 2019 NFL draft that boasts a higher upside.
Saturday night's performance does show that Herbert still has work to do. He was a tick late on some of his reads, including, of course, the final one that sealed Oregon's fate.
However, should he elect to forgo his senior season - which is no guarantee given that he is a Eugene native and that his younger brother is set to join the team next year - Herbert is likely to be the first quarterback selected.