EUGENE — Two years ago, Oregon’s coaches and players experienced a sense of relief after each win.
There is a different kind of pressure for a quarterback in the Heisman Trophy race and a team expected to win the Pac-12 and compete for a national championship.
After the Ducks’ 30-28 victory over No. 11 Utah on Saturday, the emotions in the visiting locker room were quite different. Many of Oregon’s younger players, including freshman quarterback Justin Herbert, had never flown home after a road win.
“It was pure joy, pure excitement,” secondary coach John Neal said. “We have freshmen, and they’ve never experienced championships like a lot of us have. They’ve only experienced defeat and getting beat bad and almost a sense of hopelessness.”
Herbert and some other rising stars have provided hope for a brighter future for the program in the midst of a 4-7 season that will conclude Saturday at Oregon State.
Mark Helfrich and his coaching staff have insisted throughout the season that the Ducks were practicing well and on the cusp of a breakthrough. Herbert’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Darren Carrington with two seconds remaining capped a wild fourth quarter that included five lead changes.
“If you don’t get rewards, eventually it could knock you to the ground,” Neal said. “It was fun to watch them celebrate.”
Oregon only scored three points in the first half but finished with three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, racking up 246 yards and converting all six third-down situations in the decisive frame.
Herbert, who was sacked three times by Utah’s formidable front, picked the Utes’ zone coverage part for 324 yards and three touchdown passes. The former Sheldon High standout also rushed for 44 yards and a score.
“He took some shots from a very good defense,” Helfrich said of Herbert, who suffered an injury to his left hand in the first quarter. “He responded great, and the O-line competed the whole day. We just had a next-play mentality, better than the last couple weeks against some very good fronts.”
The Ducks, coming off back-to-back losses to USC and Stanford by an average of 25 points, rushed for 251 yards and held Utah to 218 yards on the ground.
Royce Freeman had 129 yards rushing and eight receptions for 36 yards and a touchdown.
“It doesn’t surprise me how they came out and competed,” defensive coordinator Brady Hoke said of his defense, which entered the game ranked 127th out of 128 FBS teams in points allowed (43.5 per game) and 126th in yards allowed (535.7 per game). “That’s just how their work ethic has been. I think Mark has done a great job with our whole team.”
Bowl hopes alive?
There are 64 bowl-eligible (six or more wins) teams, which leaves 16 spots to fill the 40 scheduled bowls games.
Another 18 teams still have an opportunity to reach six wins, but more than likely there will be some 5-7 teams invited to bowls.
The Ducks have a chance to finish the regular season 5-7 if they beat Oregon State on Saturday at Reser Stadium (1 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
“The biggest part of any of that is getting to five (wins),” Helfrich said during his Sunday press conference. “We’ve already obviously gotten a great advance look on Oregon State, who’s playing really well right now, dominated Arizona. … The only thing that matters is how we prepare.”
The Pac-12 has seven bowl tie-ins, not including the College Football Playoff. The conference had 10 bowl teams in 2015, nine in 2013, eight in 2012 and 2014 and seven in 2011.
Oregon, which opened as a 3½-point favorite over Oregon State, hasn’t been left out of bowl season since 2004.
Hoke indicated Saturday that starting defensive tackle Rex Manu will likely be out for the rest of the season because of a knee injury.
“We don’t know 100 percent officially on Rex Manu, might have something later this week unfortunately on him,” Helfrich said. “But it’s a battle of attrition in there right now.”
Oregon is already down six defensive linemen since fall camp due to a dismissal, injuries, suspensions and medical hardships.