Oregon still has hope as a long-shot playoff contender. But then again, so does Cal, right?
I have been saying this every week in the Power Rankings, but I think that Oregon is the team to beat in the Pac-12. While Washington had a talented but unproven roster, Oregon is returning many of the key pieces from their talented team last year, including Justin Herbert, who forwent a likely first round NFL draft pick to return for his senior season. Not only that, but they addressed many of their weaknesses by recruiting the top draft class in the Pac-12 this off-season. Oregon is the most complete team in the Pac-12. I did something for this article that I usually don’t do: I re-watched last year’s Cal game because of how well Herbert played against Cal, despite all of the confusing defensive schemes and tight coverages the Cal defense threw at him. It was hard to watch. Additionally, Oregon is coming off a bye week, which means that Oregon has had even more time than usual to prepare for the Cal defense, as well as give their injured players more time to recover. I expect Oregon to look strong coming into this game.
Let’s start with the obvious: Justin Herbert has the look of a prototypical NFL passer. He has tremendous arm strength, and a sizable frame at 6’6” and 235 pounds. Herbert can make all the throws, whether he’s firing a laser 50 yards downfield or fitting the ball through an extremely tight window where only his wide receiver can get it. He’s not afraid to test tight coverage, as we saw last year in the Cal game. He’s decently mobile, often being compared to Mitchell Trubisky or Josh Allen as a runner. If we are nitpicking Herbert as a potential first round pick, his biggest criticisms are that he is sometimes sloppy with his footwork, which causes his throws to sail, and he often locks onto his first read, only switching to his second read once he’s under duress. Herbert has suffered some serious injuries in his career, such as a broken femur in high school and a broken collarbone in the 2017 Cal game (sorry Ducks), which has made Herbert a bit too uncomfortable in the pocket at times, even though Herbert has a stellar offensive line to protect him.
Herbert can make great throws both in and out of the pocket, standing still in the pocket, or on the run:
Herbert has a knack for placing the ball where only his receiver can get it. These throws are so common for him that they don’t register as highlights for me when I’m watching them. You can see throws like this in pretty much any Oregon game:
Here Herbert is testing safety/interception-machine Jaylinn Hawkins, who literally had the best passer rating in coverage in the FBS last year, above even 2nd round NFL Draft pick Taylor Rapp:
Of course, Herbert isn’t perfect. Although he was firing on all cylinders in the Cal game last year, he does struggle with his accuracy at times. The worst game I can recall is their game against a hopelessly outmatched, 43-point underdog San Jose State (who ultimately finished the season 1-11): Herbert finished 16/34, with 3 TDs/2 INTs as Oregon scraped by with a 13 point win.
He made throws like this:
And like this:
Herbert is really good, but he’s not unstoppable— although it certainly seems that way when he is playing his best. Herbert isn’t really the type to struggle under pressure, but he is prone to lapses in judgment, and so hopefully Cal has a good gameplan for him— the way we’ve seen them shut down similarly talented offenses like Washington State in 2017 or Washington in 2018 and 2019.
Before we get to the running backs, I have to point out just how good this Oregon offensive line is: they are loaded with NFL talent. Left tackle Penei Sewell is sure to be a high first round draft pick: he didn’t have a single penalty in over 450 snaps (and he’s still yet to commit any this year), and has only allowed a single sack in his college career. Left guard Shane Lemieux is a great run blocker and potential mid-round pick, as is right tackle Calvin Throckmorton (who’s likely better in pass protection). The center Jake Hanson has been a reliable leader of the offensive line, and has NFL potential as well. Heck, the tight end Jacob Breeland is a solid blocker as well. Also of note is backup OL Brady Aiello, who actually took a snap from the tight end position and scored a touchdown on his first ever completion against Nevada this year. The only offensive lineman that was frustrating to watch (and much more so last year) was the right guard Dallas Warmack, who is evidently the weak spot on this offensive line. This offensive line is what gives Herbert plenty of time to throw, as well as open huge holes for their speedy running backs to blaze through. The offensive line is the anchor of this team, and Oregon’s biggest struggles last year came after Penei Sewell was lost to injury in the Washington game, as Oregon went on to lose 3 of their next 4 games (I believe they also lost center Jake Hanson to a targeting penalty at some point as well, which only made things worse).
Oregon has a stable of running backs that they like to rotate in. The starting running back is CJ Verdell, who despite his smaller stature, has a nice mix of speed and power:
Then there is the even smaller (5’9” 170 lbs) but speedier RB Travis Dye:
RBs Darrian Felix and Cyrus Habibi-Likio are bigger and more powerful running backs. Habibi-Likio in particular was a goal line specialist: he had 5 touchdowns on his first 7 carries last year, and I was sad to see Oregon finally use him in a non-goal line situation (he finished the year with 7 TDs on 18 carries). Habibi-Likio is questionable for the game as he is recovering from an injury, but he has been practicing during the bye week. Although none of the running backs strike me as particularly scary, they do get to run behind a stellar offensive line, which means they can hurt you when they get a chance.
Last year, Oregon’s Achilles’ heel was the drops by its wide receivers. They also lost their top wide receiver from last year (now with the Minnesota Vikings) Dillon Mitchell. To address this, Oregon added Penn State transfer WR Juwan Johnson and a number of 4-star wide receiver recruits this off-season— most notably, WR Mycah Pittman (the younger brother of USC star WR Michael Pittman Jr.) and WR Josh Delgado. Juwan Johnson looked like the clear #1 receiver in the Oregon spring game to replace Dillon Mitchell, but he suffered an injury late in August and is still listed as day-to-day. Mycah Pittman was a sure-handed wide receiver, but he too suffered an injury in practice prior to the season. Oh wait, one more— senior WR Brenden Schooler also suffered an injury in August. What are you doing in these practices, Oregon? Pittman and Schooler have both returned to practice this week, and may be returning to the lineup soon.
So who has Herbert been throwing the ball to? Oregon’s leading receiver so far this year is the tight end, Jacob Breeland, who has exhibited great chemistry with Herbert. He’s also been a much more sure-handed receiver than a lot of the other receivers.
Herbert’s other top targets are the wide receivers Johnny Johnson III and Jaylon Redd. Johnson and Redd have had less drops so far this year, but outside of Auburn, Oregon was simply steamrolling FCS-level competition in Nevada, Montana, and Stanford, so they haven’t really been tested by a good secondary (Auburn’s defensive strength is their defensive line, not their secondary).
Oregon will be a much stronger team once Juwan Johnson and Mycah Pittman return to the lineup. Until then, this unit is a bit of a wildcard.
Cal lost by 18 points last year, but that was also in the middle of the Garbers/McIlwain experiment, and included 5 turnovers in that game (including both a fumble returned for a touchdown and an interception returned for a touchdown). Oregon did ease off the gas pedal a bit, but it seems unlikely that Oregon will put up another 42 points on Cal. Oregon is a much stronger team at home, as Autzen is a very hostile and loud stadium. It’s hard to be too optimistic after Cal’s second half performance against ASU, but I don’t think this game is as hopeless as many Cal fans might think.