All summer long hype centered around the star quarterback playing in the Advocare Kickoff Classic and for all but the final nine seconds of the game that passer was undoubtedly Oregon’s Justin Herbert, the Heisman Trophy and projected No. 1 overall pick of the 2020 NFL draft.
It was Auburn true freshman Bo Nix, however, who delivered the final dagger, stealing the spotlight from Herbert with an improbable 26-yard touchdown toss in the final seconds to receiver Seth Williams, who broke a tackle by Oregon cornerback Verone McKinley III at the goal-line to give the Tigers a shocking 27-21 win over the Ducks.
Oregon led virtually the entire game with Herbert directing a touchdown-scoring drive on the team’s first possession of the season and holding a 21-6 advantage with 4:21 remaining in the third quarter.
The Tigers ratcheted up the physicality in the second half, however, and Herbert was unable to match Nix’s comeback with one of his own, sailing his only attempt at a Hail Mary yards out of the end zone.
Prior to Auburn’s frantic comeback, Herbert flashed all of the traits that have scouts so enamored with his upside - driving the ball effortlessly downfield with his rifle-like arm, leading receivers perfectly towards the sideline out of bootlegs, showing courage, vision and strength when stepping up in the pocket.
While there were a few hiccups along the way, the Ducks’ stellar offensive line provided a clean nest for Herbert throughout much of this contest, allowing him to survey the entire field and go through his progressions. He completed 28 of 37 throws overall on the night, distributing the ball to receivers (18 completions for 177 yards), tight ends (seven/54/1 TD) and running backs (3/1) for a total of 242 yards and the score. He did not throw an interception.
Some of his best plays looked simple and require perspective to show why they are special.
Take a look at this throw, for example.
Sure, this is a relatively short throw. It comes amid a collapsing pocket, however, and with Herbert calmly stepping up into the teeth of the rush. Further, the ball placement is perfect. Herbert successfully leads his receiver away from the defender and into the soft spot in the zone where the pass-catcher will be protected, effectively making it an easier catch.
Those preferring Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa over Herbert likely were not convinced to change their opinion based on Saturday’s performance. After all, Herbert lost a winnable game, led his team to just 4/14 conversions on third down and averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt.
Herbert and the Ducks as a whole certainly deserve credit for composure, however, especially given that the team was shorthanded at receiver in this game. Oregon’s top three receivers were all held out of this game due to injury, including Penn State graduate transfer Juwan Johnson, who was brought in to replace the production lost a year ago with the Pac-12’s leading receiver Dillon Mitchell heading early to the NFL.
While fans tend to focus on the skill position players, scouts have been salivating all summer long for this contest, as it featured terrific battle in the pit with Auburn every bit as loaded along the defensive line as the Ducks are on the offensive side. As was noted on the telecast, the Ducks boast the nation's most experienced offensive line with its blockers entering the game with a combined 153 starts under their belt. All five of Oregon's blockers are draftable. The Tigers boast a handful of future NFL draft picks, led by massive senior defensive tackle Derrick Brown, my top-rated defensive prospect overall.
With a few exceptions, Brown and fellow potential first round pick Nick Coe were largely silenced throughout this game – the only contest this holiday weekend featuring a battle of two teams ranked within the top 20. Cristobal and offensive coordinator Andy Avalos aided their blockers by calling plenty of quick passes to get the ball out of Herbert’s hands.
Even when he elected to hold onto the ball, however, Oregon’s front held up well against Auburn’s pressure.
For example, Herbert deserves credit for the arm strength, accuracy and courage to make this throw but it was the time afforded him by his offensive line that was perhaps just as impressive as the pass, itself, or true freshman tight end Spencer Webb’s adjustment to the ball in flight, for that matter.
While Herbert and the Ducks are surely disappointed with the loss, don’t expect his NFL stock to take a hit. Herbert’s talent is obvious and the Ducks were clearly shorthanded at receiver, something scouts will take into consideration when evaluating his performance in this game and the rest of the 2019 season.