EUGENE, Ore. — The Ducks obviously missed Justin Herbert.
Oregon’s starting quarterback returned after a five-game absence and helped lead the team to a 48-28 victory over Arizona on Saturday night. Royce Freeman ran for four touchdowns in the win, which made Ducks (6-5, 3-4) bowl eligible in coach Willie Taggart’s first year as head coach.
“It was just a lot of fun to be back out there,” said Herbert, who threw for 235 yards and a score in his first game back since fracturing his collarbone. “We’ve got great guys on this team and it’s so much fun to be part of this and it’s awesome to play in that game.”
Freeman ran for 135 yards on 19 carries. His first scoring run of the game gave him the Oregon career record for total touchdowns.
Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate was held back by Oregon’s defense, passing for 159 yards and a touchdown while running for 32 yards. Tate, who was the team’s leading rusher with 11 touchdowns, had run for a in each of the last six games for Arizona (7-4, 5-3).
Asked what Oregon did to slow him down, Tate replied: “They played football.”
While there were rumors Herbert was poised to come back, it wasn’t official until he was announced as a starter by the public address announcer at Autzen Stadium.
He proclaimed his comeback on-field with a 40-yard dash for a touchdown in the opening quarter that tied the game at 7.
“It was a little surprising. There was a little pressure inside, so I got out to the left and didn’t see anyone in front of me, so I decided to take off, and luckily I got into the end zone,” he said.
Herbert was injured in Oregon’s 45-24 victory over California on Sept. 30 and replaced by true freshman Braxton Burmeister. The Ducks went 1-4 over the course of Herbert’s absence.
The Wildcats scored first Saturday on Nick Wilson’s 18-yard run. After Herbert’s long scoring run, Freeman ran four yards for his 59th touchdown, setting a new Oregon career record.
Arizona’s Dane Cruikshank intercepted Herbert early in the second quarter and ran the ball back 64 yards into the end zone but as he sprinted the final 10 yards he wagged his finger at the Oregon players chasing him. He was flagged for taunting and the touchdown was negated.
The penalty enraged Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez.
“Totally ridiculous,” he said. “We should never do it. It should never, ever, ever, ever happen. Never do it.”
Arizona ended the drive with a touchdown anyway when Tate hit Tony Ellison with a 15-yard touchdown and then Wilson gave the Wildcats a 21-14 lead with a 20-yard scoring run.
But Herbert found Jacob Breeland with 39-yard touchdown pass to tie it again and Freeman added a 28-yard scoring run to give the Ducks a 28-21 lead at halftime.
Freeman added an 11-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter, but Arizona kept it close with Zach Green’s 2-yard touchdown run.
Aiden Schneider’s 40-yard field goal gave the Ducks a 38-28 lead to open the fourth quarter. After Herbert’s 50-yard pass to Johnny Johnson III, Freeman ran a yard for his fourth TD of the night. He moved past LaDanian Tomlinson into 10th on the NCAA’s career rushing list with 5,499 yards and has 58 career rushing touchdowns, one shy of the conference record set by Oregon State’s Ken Simonton (1998-2001).
Schneider’s 24-yard field goal was for the final margin and Arizona went scoreless in the final period.
Tate went into the game leading the nation with five 70-plus yard runs, four of them for touchdowns. He has the longest run for a quarterback (82 yards) and his 327 yards rushing against Colorado set a single-game NCAA record for a QB.
“I thought they had some success in slowing him down,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t block them well, we didn’t read it well, and they did a good job. The frustrating part is we’ll probably watch the film and they were playing the exact way we thought they’d play. But they played it better than us.”
Wilson has 33 career touchdowns. … Arizona is finishing out its season with consecutive road games for the first time since 2009. … The Wildcats had won five of the last six games. … Arizona was already assured of playing in the postseason. USC has already clinched a spot in the league championship game for the Pac-12 South.
Arizona will visit Arizona State in Tempe in a Territorial Cup rivalry game next Saturday.