The forecast for Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert could have been much worse.
Ducks head coach Willie Taggart told reporters Monday that the sophomore sustained a fracture to his collar bone in Oregon's 45-24 win over Cal, requiring anywhere from four to six weeks of time off to heal. That's significantly better than had Herbert suffered a complete break, which would have sidelined him for the season.
As it stands, Oregon enters an especially challenging stretch without its starting signal-caller, who completed 68.3 percent of his pass attempts for 1,264 yards and nine touchdowns through his first four games and change. The Ducks face No. 11 Washington State on Saturday, undefeated and fresh from a 30-27 win over preseason Pac-12 championship favorite, USC.
The Cougars flourished defensively, generating consistent pressure on Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold. Darnold had his worst game as a starter, going just 15-of-29 for 164 yards with an interception and no touchdowns. Hercules Mata'afa and company made things difficult on the consensus preseason pick for the Pac-12's top quarterback. Now, either Taylor Alie or Braxton Burmeister must solve a defense anchored by someone USC head coach Clay Helton called "the best defensive player" his team's seen this season.
Further complicating that proposition is the uncertain status of running back Royce Freeman. Freeman is putting up Heisman Trophy-caliber numbers through the first stretch of the season with 10 rushing touchdowns, a healthy 5.75 yards per carry average, and 25.6 receiving yards per game to mix things up. He was removed from the Cal game early with a shoulder injury, though he could be back against Washington State.
If Freeman does not return, or is limited in his role, the new Oregon quarterback should still have support from the run game, courtesy of Kani Benoit.
Benoit rolled off 107 yards in the season opener, albeit against an overmatched Southern Utah team out of the FCS Big Sky. The Cal game was Benoit's first opportunity to shine as the premier back — and shine he did.
Benoit went off for 138 yards on 18 carries, and his two touchdowns gave him his third multiple-score game of the season.
"It wasn't anything that was surprising, because that's just how Kani's been since I've been here," Taggart said. "He's all about competing, he's all about showing what he's capable of doing. He always tells me, 'Give me the chance, coach, and I'll show you.' And every opportunity he's got since I've been here, he's taken advantage of."
A fifth-year senior, Benoit has seen touches throughout his Oregon career, but never been the primary ball carrier. He deferred to a duo of Thomas Tyner and Freeman as a freshman in 2014, remained a backup in '15 as Freeman posted record-setting numbers, and last season was behind Tony Brooks-James as well as Freeman on the depth chart.
Benoit's commitment and patience are paying off for him in 2017, and the Ducks are seeing immediate dividends, too, with his prolific output carrying them to victory over Cal.
"We feel like we have good depth there at running back, where a lot of those probably could go somewhere else and be the starter," Taggart said.
Rather than transfer and seek more touches elsewhere, Benoit's grown into a veteran with considerable NFL potential, and the chance to have a huge impact on Oregon's season. As part of a committee with Brooks-James and Freeman, the role of Benoit and the run game in general will be exponentially greater in the coming weeks.
"It can help a young guy out, who's coming in there and hasn't played a lot," Taggart said of having a multifaceted rushing attack.
And indeed, that bore out against Cal, with the Ducks running 44 times and passing just 14 once Herbert — and briefly Alie — came out.
"If you can establish the running game, and your O-line and running backs and receivers are doing a good job, it really can help a young guy at quarterback," Taggart continued. "So, we've got to continue to do what we've been doing with the run game."
What Oregon's been doing thus far is posting 260.8 rushing yards per game, 13th-most in the nation — and the Ducks must do so in a stretch where three of the five defenses they face rank between No. 10 and No. 41 against the run (Utah, Washington and Washington State).