As Oregon’s offense has labored the past couple weeks, quarterback Justin Herbert and wide receiver Dillon Mitchell continued to shine through the muck.
But entering this week’s matchup with UCLA (4:30 p.m., FOX), the Ducks might be forced to break their two-game losing streak with both players on the sideline.
Herbert and Mitchell are both in Oregon’s concussion protocol after sustaining injuries in last week’s 44-15 beatdown at the hands of Arizona.
“Anytime that the doctors choose to put someone in concussion protocol, we just leave it in the hands of them and they let us know exactly what goes on to determine if and how extensive that injury should be,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said.
Mitchell was the first to go down, exiting the game in the third quarter after taking a big hit from Arizona safety Tristan Cooper. He did walk off the field under his own power but went to the locker room and never returned.
Meanwhile, Herbert got hurt with less than 90 seconds remaining and the Ducks down by 29. Running the ball on third-and-goal, Herbert was walloped by two Wildcats defenders at the two-yard line as he was trying to score. While he never should’ve been in the game at that point, Herbert did finish the drive on when Oregon’s fourth down conversion failed.
"We wanted to be able to move the ball and to get out of there having at least some sort of confidence in moving and potentially scoring," Cristobal said when asked why Herbert was still in the game at the time of his injury.
With their status up in the air, the Ducks will look to other players — such back-up quarterbacks Tyler Shough and Braxton Burmeister.
The sophomore Burmeister, who started five games last year when Herbert was hurt, played in last year’s game against UCLA, finishing 8-of-15 for 74 yards and an interception — although he did have two rushing touchdowns. He’s the most talented running the football of all Oregon’s quarterbacks but doesn’t possess the arm talent Herbert or Shough have.
Shough is the freshman who’s yet to play a meaningful snap this year but has drawn so much praise from coaches and players that he’s been listed as the “OR” backup with Burmeister for much of the year. Possessed with a big arm and a mind to match, Shough could inject the Oregon offense with a jolt of energy and allow the Ducks to keep much of their same game plan.
"Should the case be where it's something where they have to play right away, absolutely, those guys will be taking a bunch of reps," Cristobal said.
Stepping in to fill the shoes of Mitchell will be Jaylon Redd, Johnny Johnson III and Brenden Schooler. They are the most proven receivers on the team outside of Mitchell, and as Cristobal admitted, the only players ready to play on Saturday’s.
"The guys that are behind them need to improve on their consistency — I would always say that fundamentals, consistency, understanding the scheme inside and out, making the plays in practice,” Cristobal said.
Redd leads the team with five touchdown catches while Johnson has four — but they’ve only combined for 33 catches on the season. Redd has been the most consistent of the bunch, but Johnson flashes more game-changing potential with 16.8 yards per catch. Schooler (13 catches) is the most precise route runner with the best hands but lacks elite athleticism, often having trouble getting open against man coverage.
"We've got a young receivers corps,” Cristobal said. “Some of them are getting better but they're working at it… some of them have had some really good success and some are still working at it.”
Ending their two-game losing skid was going to be hard enough with former head coach Chip Kelly standing on the opposite sideline — while doing so without your two best offensive weapons puts the Ducks into an even deeper hole.
But this is the type of game where teams find out what they’re really made of, and if Oregon is to get back to its winning ways, it’s going to come from the names not heard every day.