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1,000 Words: How Nevada pushed Oregon star Justin Herbert to the Ducks

Justin Herbet
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert is a Heisman Trophy candidate. (AP file)

Nevada Sports Net columnist Chris Murray is known to be a bit wordy, so we're giving him 1,000 words (but no more than that) to share his thoughts from the week that was in the world of sports.

* JUSTIN HERBERT GREW UP a fan of the Oregon Ducks, which makes sense considering his childhood home was about 10 minutes from Autzen Stadium and his grandpa was a receiver for the program in the 1960s. Herbert eventually starred as a three-sport start at Sheldon High in Eugene before turning into a Heisman Trophy candidate for his hometown college. But it wasn’t really Oregon that discovered the 6-foot-6, 237-pound quarterback despite him growing up down the street from campus. It was actually Nevada, which will try and stop Herbert during Saturday’s showdown. The Wolf Pack prompted the Ducks’ offer.

* HERBERT BECAME SHELDON’S starting quarterback as a junior and got off to a gang-busting start before suffering a season-ending leg injury in the third game of the season. With an older brother playing for Montana State, Herbert drew offers from a trio of FCS programs (Northern Arizona, Portland State, Montana State), but no FBS teams nibbled. Nevada eventually got word on the lanky and lean prospect who was falling under the radar. Perhaps the Wolf Pack could swoop in and get a Power 5-level talent who didn’t have much film because of an ill-timed injury. Perhaps the Pack could find their next star quarterback in Eugene.

* NEVADA’S HEAD COACH at the time, Brian Polian, talked a booster into allowing him and offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich to take his private plane from Reno to Eugene to watch Herbert throw, which is basically unprecedented for the cash-strapped Pack. So, after Nevada’s morning practice one Thursday, Polian and Rolovich flew north and were immediately sold. Nevada had found their guy. Polian offered Herbert a scholarship, and the Wolf Pack duo flew back to Reno. Polian took his wife out for a movie that night when a text message buzzed his phone. Oregon had caught wind of Nevada’s trip and offer. The Ducks offered Herbert a scholarship four hours after Nevada’s offer. Herbert committed to the Ducks on the spot.

* HERBERT FELT SO BADLY he apologized to Polian and Rolovich, who had to understand why the prospect would pick Oregon over Nevada. You’re talking a Power 5 team, a Pac-12 power and the hometown school. But it stung nonetheless. Washington and Boise State were among the other FBS teams interested in Herbert, with the Huskies hosting him on two unofficial visits. But no FBS school had enough faith to offer like Nevada, which prompted then-Oregon coach Mark Helfrich to phone Herbert and seal the deal before the sun sank on a crazy night in September 2015, burning the Wolf Pack.

* THE REST IS HISTORY. As a high school senior, Herbert threw for 2,915 yards, 36 touchdowns and three interceptions, rushing for 521 yards and 10 more scores. A three-star recruit, Herbert joined Oregon in 2016 before becoming the team’s starter as a true freshman. He played for three head coaches in his first three years at Eugene and could have turned pro last season when he would have been a first-round NFL draft pick. Instead, he returned for his senior season as one of the nation’s most hyped players and has racked up 7,312 passing yards and accounted for 73 touchdowns in 30 games.

* HERBERT STILL HAS MUCH to prove, notably improving on his 17-12 record as a starting quarterback in college, but he has the size (he’s 6-6), arm strength (a big gun), intelligence (a 4.01 GPA majoring in biology), experience (a four-year starter) and consistency (he’s had at least one TD pass in every start) NFL teams crave. The game against Nevada, the first FBS school to believe in him, is a “full circle” moment for Herbert. If he torches the Wolf Pack secondary, Nevada fans can think about what might have been had Polian and Rolovich been able to reel in Herbert, who caught Nevada’s eye four years ago.

* FOR NEVADA, THE OREGON game really is a no-lose proposition. The Wolf Pack is not only expected to lose this game, but most projections have Nevada losing big. So even playing a close game, like the Wolf Pack did against Oregon in 1996, 1997 and 2003, would almost be viewed as a victory. And if Nevada did somehow upset the Ducks, it will be a top-three win in program history. Even with a loss, the Wolf Pack should be sitting at 3-1 at the end of non-conference play and could very well be 5-1 halfway through the season given how favorable the schedule is after the Oregon contest. That Purdue victory was huge.

* THE WOLF PACK’S TASK is Herculean. Nevada is a 24-point underdog. The largest underdog spread the Wolf Pack has overcome to win straight up is a 16-point spread at Washington in 2003. Oregon has won 24 straight non-conference home games and has been victorious in 14 straight home openers, averaging 57.1 points in those contests. The Ducks have scored a touchdown in 25 straight quarters in home openers (that streak goes back to 2012) and has scored 40-plus points in 13 of its last 14 home openers (the only time it fell short it still scored 38 points in a win over Purdue in 2009). The No. 16-ranked Ducks also should be peeved after losing its opener to Auburn in a game it had in hand for most of the afternoon.

* ESPN LISTED JAY NORVELL this week among its “up-and-coming” coaches who could draw interest from Power 5 teams this offseason. He’s led the Wolf Pack to back-to-back seasons with wins over Power 5 foes for the first time in school history (Nevada did beat two Power 5s in 2010). A win over Oregon would certainly put him on the list of Power 5 athletic directors. It will probably take a 10-win season and a MW West Division title for another team to hire Norvell, but he’s trending in the right direction. Nevada fans sweated out losing basketball coach Eric Musselman for three years before he eventually bolted. If Norvell keeps winning, the fan base will have to do the same thing with the school’s football coach.

Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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