EUGENE — Justin Herbert’s return to practice gave Oregon an emotional lift.
But is there enough milk in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex cafeteria to get the starting quarterback healthy enough to boost the chances of upsetting No. 12 Washington on Saturday at Husky Stadium?
“I’m not sure,” coach Willie Taggart said. “He’s been drinking a lot and he’s getting better. Look, we’re going to put Justin out there when we feel like he’s ready to go and we’re not going to do anything to jeopardize him. If he’s ready this week we’ll play him, and if not then we won’t. We’re going to continue to practice him and let him continue to get better, but we’re not going to put him out there in harm’s way and let him re-injure himself.
“I don’t know how much milk that’s going to take but he’s been drinking it and it’s been helping and he’s been healing really quick.”
Herbert suffered a fractured collarbone while rushing for a touchdown Sept. 30 against California. Oregon lost its next three games with Braxton Burmeister behind center, but the true freshman completed 9 of 12 passes for 47 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions during the 41-20 victory over Utah.
After the loss at UCLA the previous week, Taggart designed a film study to stop any finger-pointing in the locker room aimed at Burmeister.
“I had a sense that everything was pointed toward Braxton as to why we weren’t winning. And that wasn’t the case,” Taggart said. “We weren’t winning because we weren’t playing as well as a team. I wanted to show our guys.”
In five starts, Herbert completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 1,264 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. In five games, Burmeister has completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 293 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions.
Oregon’s dominant running game and Jim Leavitt’s defense took a lot of pressure off Burmeister against the Utes. Whether Herbert returns or not, the Ducks will have to play their best game of the season to beat the Huskies, who are favored by 21 points and won last year’s meeting 70-21 at Autzen Stadium.
“We’ve got three ballgames left, and I feel like if we play our best we could win them all,” Taggart said, “which would be awesome for our football team and our seniors to go out and double their win total from last year.
“But that won’t happen unless we’re totally focused on what we got to do and play at our best.”
Taggart announced that backup offensive lineman Doug Brenner, a fifth-year senior, will miss the rest of the season after undergoing hip surgery.
Defensive lineman Scott Pagano hasn’t played since the Stanford game due to a shoulder injury. The graduate transfer from Clemson was expected to have a major impact with the Ducks but has produced only three tackles in five appearances.
“(Pagano) hasn’t played much, so we really haven’t had a chance to see everything he can do,” Taggart said. “We’ve got to make sure we’re locked in with the guys that’s helping us right now. Hopefully he can get back and help us in these next three ballgames.”
More Taj please
Taj Griffin played running back for the first time this season against Utah after moving to slot receiver during fall camp. The speedy junior had three carries for 26 yards to contribute to Oregon’s 347 rushing yards.
Royce Freeman (139 yards), Tony Brooks-James (105 yards, one touchdown) and Kani Benoit (71 yards, one touchdown) combined for 35 carries.
“Last week we thought the way we used him was a good way for Taj,” Taggart said. “We’ve got to continue to find ways to get him the ball. The kid is very talented and electrifying when he has the ball in his hands.”
Griffin was a bright spot during last year’s loss to Washington with 81 total yards and two touchdowns.
Freeman, who has 1,096 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns this season, is one of 18 finalists for the Maxwell Award given to the nation’s top college football player. Marcus Mariota won the award in 2014. … Washington, which ended Oregon’s 12-game winning streak in the series last October en route to the College Football Playoff, has won 22 of its last 25 games. … The Fox Sports 1 broadcast crew includes Aaron Goldsmith (play-by-play), A.J. Hawk (color) and Danny Kanell (analyst).
“I think he’s done a really, really good job. I mean, obviously,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said of Taggart’s first season at Oregon. “You just watch these guys play and the talent they have and the energy they play with. It definitely is a new dynamic down there, for sure.”