Oregon will throw freshman quarterback Justin Herbert to the Dawgs on Saturday when the Ducks host No. 5 Washington at Autzen Stadium.
Starting Herbert over underwhelming senior transfer Dakota Prukop against one of the best defenses in the country might seem like cruel and unusual punishment, or the decision simply smacks of desperation for the 2-3 Ducks.
Whatever the case, Herbert appears to have the talent to be successful. Enough talent to at least make it plausible that he could rise to the occasion an deliver at the very least flashes of future potential.
But can he defeat the Huskies? Doubtful. But not impossible. It's always difficult to cast an educated assessment of a mystery. Herbert is certainly an unknown. That will change Saturday evening and we will be left with a completely different narrative for Oregon's season.
Here is a look at the likely scenarios that could happen during and after Saturday's game:
- Herbert leads the Ducks to a victory: Nothing would kick-start the legend of Justin Herbert more than him leading the Ducks to an improbable victory on Saturday. A win would put the Ducks back into the North Division race with far less daunting competition on the horizon. However, a Herbert-led victory would also cause the coach Mark Helfrich haters to ask, "why didn't you play Herbert sooner?" A fair question with a simple answer. Players improve over time. There's no reason to believe that Herbert was as good coming out of fall camp six weeks ago as he might be right now. Herbert's accelerated development, however, would put an end to the crazy accusations that Helfrich, who recruited and helped tutor Marcus Mariota, can't develop quarterbacks.
- Herbert plays well, or is average, in defeat: This is the most likely scenario. Even if Herbert shines it appears unlikely that the Ducks will overcome any freshman mistakes he makes and their porous defense to defeat a very well balanced team like Washington. But if Herbert could manage to simply show signs of being a potential star in the making, that would set the table well for the rest of the season. A solid Herbert against UW could turn into a potent Herbert in two weeks at California and beyond.
- Herbert struggles and Ducks get blown out: If the Ducks play well enough to win in most phases but fall to UW primarily because of inadequate quarterback play, then the narrative would be that Oregon should have started the more experienced Prukop. If the Ducks are blown out and Herbert is awful, then the sky would begin to fall all around the Ducks. Either way, Oregon would be left with a 2-4 record and huge remaining questions about the quarterback position, for this season and beyond, that likely won't be answered before UO falls out of bowl game contention.
The intrigue is certainly palpable.
A quick look at the Oregon-Washington:
When: 4:30 p.m., Saturday, Autzen Stadium.
Betting line: Washington by 8.
Records: Oregon (2-3, 0-2 Pac-12), Washington (5-0, 2-0).
Coaches: Oregon's Mark Helfrich (35-11); UW coach Chris Petersen (20-12 at Washington, 112-24 overall).
Last week: Washington won 44-6 at home against Stanford.
How the Huskies will win: Washington will come at Oregon's defense with a deft young quarterback, two solid running backs, a fleet of fast receivers and a dominant defense.
Game over, right? Probably.
Jake Browning has come into his own as a passer. He ranks second in the conference in passing efficiency (196.3) and is second in touchdown passes (17) with just two interceptions. He's completed 70.7 percent of his passes.
Browning's top targets are Chico McClatcher (16 receptions. 313 yards, four touchdowns), John Ross (21-277-6) and Dante Pettis (15-211-4). Sophomore Myles Gaskin is providing the rushing attack. He ranks fourth in the conference with 80.4 yards per game and has four rushing touchdowns.
Washington should score points, like everyone else does, against Oregon's defense. The question is whether the Ducks can move the ball consistently against Washington's dominant defense led by linebacker Azeem Victor, who ranks fourth in the conference with 8.4 tackles per game. Linebacker Psalm Wooching ranks tied for second with 4 1/2 sacks.
UW, allowing 12.8 points per game, has shut down everyone other than Arizona, which runs a similar spread offense to Oregon. The Wildcats lost 35-28 in overtime at home to UW two weeks ago.
That outcome bodes well for Oregon's chances.
How Oregon can win: Browning is not very mobile. The Ducks' defense did well against Nebraska other than containing its mobile quarterback, Tommy Armstrong Jr. Browning's inability to hurt UO with his feet could play well for Oregon if linebacker Troy Dye helps Oregon generate a pass rush. That could slow down Washington's offense a bit.
Plus, Washington runs more of a pro-style offense. The Ducks did well slowing down Nebraska' running game but has struggled mostly against teams that spread them out and run the ball (Virginia and Washington State).
If the defense plays a respectable game, the Ducks could find enough success on offense to win if Herbert plays phenomenally well. Arizona's dual-threat quarterback Brandon Dawkins, a redshirt sophomore, had a great all-around game against the Huskies.
Herbert must get rid of the ball quickly to avoid being sacked (Washington has 21), and take care of the football. If he can get the ball down field to receivers Darren Carrington II and Charles Nelson, the Ducks could score enough points to pull off an upset.
But those are big ifs against Washington's defense, especially with a freshman quarterback at the helm.
Fear factor (five-point scale): Infinity. There's no reason to believe the Ducks can stop anyone, let alone Washington, and the Huskies' defense must be licking its collective chops after watching how WSU rattled the Ducks' offense on Saturday.
Preliminary pick: Washington 37, Oregon 24. It's the Huskies time and they are not going to allow a weak UO defense and a freshman quarterback to derail their run at a potential playoff berth.