EUGENE - The Oregon Ducks stared adversity in the face Saturday night and didn't falter. They barely even blinked. They simply found a way to win, and did so convincingly, 45-24 over California at Autzen Stadium.
The victory did come with a heavy injury toll, however. Starting quarterback Justin Herbert will miss at least a couple of games with a broken collarbone. Still, the night might have provided another peak into something positive to be found within this team. The young Ducks (4-1, 1-1 PAC-12) remain quite flawed but they don't quit. Not when Arizona State last week took a 31-14 lead in the third quarter and not on Saturday when players began going down left and right from injuries.
The carnage could have been enough to cause most teams to collapse, as did the 2015 Ducks during the Alamo Bowl debacle two seasonsago. Not this year's team. These Ducks kept their heads up, backups rose to the occasion and UOs pulled through.
"I realized that this team cares about each other," UO coach Willie Taggart said. "I think what we're all seeing right now is a team that enjoys playing for one another."
Senior running back Royce Freeman left the game first with what appeared to be a shoulder injury after making a nice cut outside to the right for 13 yards early in the first quarter with Oregon leading 3-0. That drive ended with Herbert throwing a 37-yards touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Brenden Schooler to give the Ducks a 10-0 lead.
Team sources say that Freeman's injury isn't all that serious and that he could return next wek against No. 11 Washington State (5-0). Taggart said during his post game press conference that Freeman told him that he should be okay.
Minutes after Freeman went down, sophomore wide receiver Dillon Mitchell went out with an undisclosed injury while returning a punt when UO safety Fotu T. Leiato II doubled back to blast a Cal player only to miss his mark and instead drill an unsuspecting Mitchell.
The ensuing drive ended with Herbert rushing for a seven-yard touchdown to give the Ducks a 17-0 lead. On the play, Herbert was violently tackled as he fell into the end zone. Team trainers attended to him on the sideline before he left the field with what multiple team sources say is a broken collarbone that will sideline him for at least a few weeks.
Oregon entered the game minus senior wide receiver Charles Nelson (ankle), redshirt sophomore tight end Jacob Breeland, freshman safety Nick Pickett (knee) and senior inside linebacker A.J. Hotchkins (ankle).
After Herbert went out, the Ducks' offense took a nap. After gaining 159 yards of offense in the first quarter, the Ducks managed just 32 in the second quarter. Cal (3-2, 0-2) finally scored and make it 17-7 at halftime. Suddenly, a once seemingly sure victory became precarious for UO.
The Ducks figured things out by the second half, found their resolve and turned the game over to the offensive line and the defense.
"You just have to really just keep going and try not to skip a beat," redshirt sophomore center Jake Hanson said. "It seemed like everyone was going down."
Cal trailed 24-17 early in the fourth quarter before the defense really clamped down. Oregon held Cal to eight yards rushingfor the game, sacked Golden Bears quarterback Ross Bowers seven times and had 11 tackles for loss.
"With everybody dropping like that we just figred, hey, we're losing people but somebody has to step up," junior defensive end Jalen Jelks said.
The offense rushed for 126 yards in the third quarter alone and would end up with 308 on the day. Running well became a must after Herbert went out.
"It was good to see our offense able to run the football like we did," Taggart said. "That was important. That was an emphasis for us."
Senior running back Kani Benoit rushed for a career-high 138 yards and scored on a 68-yard run to give the Ducks a 31-17 lead with 9:51 remaining in the game.
"I don't think anyone waivered at all," Benoit said about Herbert going down. "We knew what we were going to do and we know we could execute it."
A sack of Bowers by Oregon outside linebacker Justin Hollins led to a fumble that the Ducks recovered inside the Golden Bears' 5-yard line. That led to a five-yard touchdown run by redshirt sophomore Tony Brooks-James to pretty much ice the game at 38-17 with 8:01 remaining.
Oregon showed flashes of heart during a 42-35 win over Nebraska when the defense held on for the win after the offense struggled and the Cornhuskers came back from a 42-14 halftime deficit. Last week at ASU, the Ducks looked awful in the first half before coming back to take a 35-34 lead after training 31-14 in the second half.
But the Ducks were unable to hang on and lost 37-35.
On Saturday, UO did lead all game and Cal doesn't have a very good offense. Still, the Ducks entered the game with several key players out and watched three more impact players leave the game. Yet, somehow the Ducks managed to find a way to win.
Some caveats exist. Oregon committed 10 turnovers for 110 yards with most coming in the second half. One penalty negated a long Brooks-James reception on a pass in the third quarter from senior back up quarterback Taylor Alie before he also go injured in the fourth quarter.
Also, Oregon's defense feasted on a very mediocre Cal offense that entered the game averaging 28 points. The Ducks next face a Washington State team averaging 41.
Finally, despite finding a way to run well and win this game the Ducks will be hard-pressed to use that formula to win many of the upcoming five games on the schedule without Herbert.
Alie, should he return, is very limited as a passer. He completed 9 of 13 passes for 41 yards against Cal. Freshman Braxton Burmeister, who replaced Alie when he went down, is a mystery but shouldn't be expected to replace Herbert.
After WSU, the Ducks play at No. 24 Stanford (3-2, 2-1), at UCLA (3-2, 1-1), home against No. 20 Utah (4-0, 2-0) and then at No. 6 Washington (5-0, 2-0).
The Ducks will need to be strong on offense to defeat any of those opponents. Unless Alie or Burmeister suddenly prove they can pass for 275 yards and multiple touchdowns in a single game, defeating any of the next five opponents is going to be quite difficult. Just don't tell Oregon that. The Ducks believe in themselves too much to listen to what they can't do.
After Saturday's game, the team could be heard celebrating in the locker room. That level of enthusiasm will be needed if Oregon is going to able to ride up these difficult injuries.
"We always say around here, 'winning is living' and I think that's what you heard in there," Taggart said. "It can't stop."