EUGENE, Ore. (AP) While Justin Herbert’s appearance in pads at practice this week was tantalizing, a more pressing matter for Oregon was preparing for Utah.
Herbert started the season at quarterback for the Ducks but fractured his collarbone in a 45-24 victory over California on Sept. 30. Oregon (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) has lost three straight without him.
The Ducks have turned to freshman Braxton Burmeister, who has had to learn on the job. He threw for 74 yards with an interception last weekend in Oregon’s 31-14 loss at UCLA, but ran for two touchdowns. Overall, Burmeister has one touchdown pass with five interceptions.
Coach Willie Taggart hasn’t ruled Herbert out for the game but it’s more likely that Burmeister will make his fourth straight start against the Utes (4-3, 1-3) as the Ducks try to turn their season around.
Taggart said Burmeister is about where he’d expect an inexperienced freshman to be without a lot of reps.
”Last week I thought he got better,” Taggart said. ”I thought he did some good things for us but he has to continue to come along and I said this before, and it’s so true, but guys around him have to step their game up and help the kid.”
Utah has also lost three straight and has also had injury issues at quarterback. Starter Tyler Huntley missed a pair of games with a right arm injury before returning last week – and struggling in a 31-10 loss to Arizona State. He threw four interceptions.
Coach Kyle Whittingham said he’s sticking with Huntley while he shakes off the injury.
”Obviously, he was a little rusty,” Whittingham said. ”I anticipated Tyler to have a little more effective game, but he was a little rusty and not 100 percent.”
The good news for both teams is there’s still time – albeit not a lot of it – to become bowl eligible.
Other things to watch for on Saturday:
CARRINGTON’S RETURN: Utah receiver Darren Carrington is making his first appearance at Autzen Stadium since he was dismissed from the Ducks this summer following his arrest on a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence.
Carrington has thrived in the Utes’ system, leading the Pac-12 with 92.7 receiving yards per game. He’s on pace to post the third-most receptions and receiving yards in a single season in school history.
He insists he has no hard feelings over his dismissal and he’s looking forward to seeing old friends.
”It’s kind of like a high school game,” Carrington said. ”Your boys (from) right down the street or you hung out with them for so long, but they just went to a different school than you. It’s just going back to play them.”
ROYCE ROLLS: Oregon’s Royce Freeman became the school’s all-time leading rusher last weekend when he piled up 160 yards in the loss to UCLA. He has 5,103 career yards to rank second on the Pac-12’s all-time list. He still needs one more touchdown to break LaMichael James’ record for total touchdowns at Oregon, and 57 yards rushing to join James as the only Ducks to have three 1,000-yard seasons.
Following the loss to the Bruins, Freeman was more focused on righting the Ducks than his individual records. ”We’ve just got to keep the fighting mentality,” he said.
SEARCHING FOR IDENTITY: Whittingham said that in the past the Utes have been known as a physical ”run-the-ball-down-your-throat-with-some-play-action” team.
”Right now, we’re still searching for who we are. Seven games in, you say how can that be? I’m asking the same question,” the coach said. ”We have to figure out what we do best and hitch our wagon to that.”
SECOND HALF WOES: Oregon hasn’t scored in the second half in each of the past three games. In fact, the Ducks have been outscored 58-0 over that span.
”We’re in our own way, we gotta get out of our own way and not lose focus on what we have to do,” Taggart said. ”Moving the ball is not the issue, it’s again, us getting in our own way whether we make the wrong read, run the wrong route, whatever it is, those things that we just can’t do.”
FOR KICKS: Kicker Matt Gay, who was a walk-on for the Utes this season, leads the nation in field goals with an average of 2.43 per game and total field goals made with 17. He also leads the Pac-12 in scoring with 10.1 points per game. He made a 56-yard field goal earlier this season, which is tied for the longest of the year nationally.
More AP college football at www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25