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BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Herbert's return sparks UO, Freeman inspires Oregon, and defense improves

DUCKS FOOTBALLInevitably, Oregon fans, followers and Duck-friendly media will designate 2017 the "what if?" season. As in "what if" Justin Herbert had been healthy all season?

It's equally important to ask "what if" the Ducks didn't have to rely on a true freshman QB — a tough and game Braxton Burmeister — to fill in for Herbert? "What if" the Ducks had developed backup quarterbacks better in recent years?

Not having backup QBs with the ability to lift the team, or even maintain things, led to their downfall, not only in 2017 but also in 2015, when Vernon Adams Jr. couldn't play and the Ducks lost games, including an epic collapse in the Alamo Bowl. Even last year, the QB position contributed to the team's 4-8 record, as the Ducks finally went with Herbert and gave up on three other players who had been with the team longer.

"Woulda, coulda, shoulda," to use one of former coach Mark Helfrich's favorite terms, doesn't change anything. Herbert returned last weekend, the Ducks exhibited some balanced offense and stellar defense against Arizona, and they won by 20 points. The Ducks lost four games by a combined 151-34 without Herbert.

Now everybody believes Oregon will blow out the lowly Beavers, 4 p.m. Saturday at Autzen Stadium. I'm thinking the same thing, although I always reserve some judgment on Oregon State, which, during a long stretch in the 1990s-2000s, beat the Ducks routinely. I like some of their parts, including QB Darell Garretson, running back Ryan Nall, receiver Jordan Villamin and tight end Noah Togiai. I'm not sure the offensive line can do any damage on UO's front. The Beavers defense has not been good, and it's banged up, but middle linebacker Manese Hungalu stands out. But how in the world will they slow the Ducks, who have their balance back and run the ball prolificly at times?

I hope the Beavers make a game of it, because everything does line up as an Oregon rout. The Ducks seem to have their swagger back, and their future pro prospect at quarterback changes everything. Much credit goes to coach Willie Taggart for not rushing Herbert back into action, and instead letting the broken collarbone fully heal. "Justin's such a special kid," he says. "I didn't want to take any chances. ... Having Justin back inspired our entire football team."

Speaking of inspirational, Royce Freeman will be among the seniors playing their final home game. He's now the owner of the top four UO offensive records that a running back could achieve — all-purpose yards (6,293), rushing yards (5,499), total touchdowns (62) and rushing TDs (58).

Saturday's game promises to be a memorable one for Freeman, who returned to help get the program back on track.

"Royce is a monster, he's always just amazing everyone, an animal," tight end Jacob Breeland says. "Just running people over, doing all he can, with a hurt shoulder. He's a great player and will do great things in the future."

Freeman serves as an inspiration to players. "He plays through pain, all for the love of the University of Oregon," Taggart says. "He means everything to this football team."

Offensive balance aside, the UO defense just got done holding down Arizona QB Khalil Tate and the Wildcats' explosive offense. Jim Leavitt's group has played fairly well all season, and one would have to think they want to cap the regular season in style Saturday. Translation: Neither Nall nor anybody will be getting the best of them.

The Ducks reveled in becoming bowl-eligible. Now, they'll get their shot at avenging last year's Civil War loss. Mostly, receiver Charles Nelson says, "it shows what we can do when everybody's on the field."

Everybody returns to the field for one more home game. Ducks win and celebrate being 7-5. I expect the Beavers to put up a decent fight, only to finish 0-9 in Pac-12 play and with Portland State their only victim this season.

THE PICK: Oregon 45, Oregon State 24

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