Hometown hero Herbert put a fitting cap on his college career on the way to the NFL
PASADENA, California — For a kid from Eugene who grew up dreaming of representing Oregon football, Justin Herbert's final moments in a Ducks uniform could not have been any more perfect.
Mere moments and one snap after teammate Brady Breeze jarred loose a critical fumble, Herbert broke to the strong side on a designed run. Thirty yards later, he was in the end zone. Tack on the extra point, and the Ducks took a lead they never relinquished.
Even after taking a hit that was well late and drew an unsportsmanlike penalty flag, Herbert bounced to his feet and stared out, confidently into the sea of green-and-gold clad Ducks fan in the Rose Bowl stadium seats.
"It's something I haven't experienced too often. But it was great, and Johnny [Johnson] and Mycah [Pittman] did a great job blocking on the outside, and that's what led me to get in the end zone."
Herbert's game-winning touchdown run and subsequent springing to his feet may have surprised outside observers who came to know the quarterback as an accurate pocket passer.
To the offensive line who blocked for him these last few years, it was anything but surprising.
"We been telling y'all, he got that 4.4, 4.3 [40-yard dash] speed," said guard Dallas Warmack.
Likewise, Herbert is known for his soft-spoken demeanor with media. The duality of that Justin Herbert tossing aside would-be tacklers with stiff-arms, as he did on his first two rushing touchdowns, then hopping up from a late hit on this third score, showed the nation the Justin Herbert teammate Shane Lemieux knows.
"This offense does whatever it takes to win, and Justin embodies that," Lemieux said. "Everyone thinks he's a quiet person, but on the football field, man, he's a dog."
Herbert was not always the vocal, on-field general. Some of the hometown fan in him bled into the quarterback as a freshman when he first stepped in as the starter, alongside some of the players he cheered a few years earlier.
"With Royce Freeman, I was such a big Royce Freeman fan," Herbert said at Rose Bowl media day. "And sometimes he'd line up on the wrong side, and I didn't have the heart to tell him. So I'd just let him stand on that side, and we'd run the play from the wrong side."
In the words of rapper Logic, Crazy how one day your idols can turn into your brethren.
The evolution from spectator to superstar required Herbert to become more comfortable unleashing that dog Lemieux described. It's an attitude the quarterback must transfer to the NFL on Day 1, particularly in an era when rookie quarterbacks are drafted with the expectation they will play immediately.
Realistically, Herbert will likely be less starstruck his first time breaking an NFL huddle than he was lining up as a Duck.
Herbert said before the 2019 season that his gridiron dream growing up wasn't to play on Sundays. He instead fantasized about leading Oregon to Pac-12 championships and Rose Bowl glory.
Check and check.
With an ideal legacy in Ducks football lore now written, the next step is indeed the NFL. Draft buzz has followed Herbert almost from the moment he assumed starting quarterback duties in the Ducks' dismal 2016 season.
Although some pundits pegged Herbert for the No. 1 spot in last spring's draft, going pro wasn't anything he seriously considered; not with unfinished business at Oregon.
By closing his Oregon career with a conference title, Herbert joins such recent noteworthy names as Joey Harrington and Marcus Mariota. With a Rose Bowl win, Herbert's in league with Darron Thomas and Mariota, the latter of whom Herbert's rushing in the 106th Granddaddy of 'Em All emulated.
Herbert shouted out all of them, as well as Jeremiah Masoli, following the win. It's an elite club of college quarterbacks, but a reminder of the chasm that exists between college and the NFL.
Like Herbert, Harrington and Mariota were viewed as sure-fire, first-round prospects. Harrington threw 79 touchdowns and 85 interceptions in seven seasons. After two impressive campaigns to begin his career, Mariota's endured tumultuous play amid almost yearly staffing changes in Tennessee -- a byproduct of the NFL's cruel nature.
Oregon has a spiritual connection to the film Animal House. In fact, "Shout" played in the fourth quarter, just three snaps prior to Breeze's forced fumble and Herbert's third touchdown rush. The dancing throughout the stadium was so lively, the Rose Bowl's north press box undulated as if The Big One had come to southern California at the most inopportune time.
And yet, dialogue from the 1986 college comedy Back to School — coincidentally filmed on the campus of Oregon's 2020 Rose Bowl opponent, Wisconsin -- more appropriately resonates with Herbert's situation.
This isn't real. College is a dream world. This is something you do to pass the time, 'til you go out in the real world.
The NFL is a business, a profession, ergo professional football. A quote from John U. Bacon's 2019 book Overtime nicely distills the difference: "Rare is the NFL veteran who does not feel a greater loyalty to the college team where he played four years than the pro team where he played 10."
In the minutes after Oregon's Rose Bowl victory concluded, Herbert expressed a sentiment to which plenty of college graduates can relate, whether they played football or not.
"I wish it wasn't over," he said. "It's been the best four years of my life."
The NFL is the unknown. No one can say definitively, in January 2020, how Herbert's pro career will unfold. But when waking up from his dream of being the Oregon quarterback, no one can question if Justin Herbert was the Big Duck on Campus.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.