Justin Herbert is an Oregon legend. That much, no matter what would've happened in the Rose Bowl, was never up for debate.
The hometown kid became the starter as a true freshman and blossomed into a touted NFL prospect. He amassed the second-most passing yards and touchdowns in school history while turning around a program that finished 4-8 in 2016 to end 12-2 in 2019.
As a senior, he guided Oregon to a Pac-12 title and won the William V. Campbell Trophy—better known as the "Academic Heisman." And on Wednesday in Pasadena, he helped the Ducks defeat Wisconsin 28-27 and win their first Rose Bowl in five seasons.
Herbert's legacy is secure.
Yet it seemed appropriate that in his final college game, Herbert provided a few truly impressive plays while mixing in a few bewildering decisions. That contrast both defined his college career and is the question mark on his NFL scouting report.
On the opening drive, he completed 4-of-5 passes for 49 yards and capped it with a four-yard touchdown run.
"This is the version of Justin Herbert that intrigues NFL scouts," NFL Network's Bucky Brooks said after the TD run. "He didn't run the ball much during the regular season before showing a more diverse game in the Pac-12 title game. When he uses his [athletic ability] to complement his arm talent, you can envision him playing like a Tier 1 QB."
That was the start of a unique performance for Herbert, who is rated the No. 28 overall draft prospect by B/R's Matt Miller.
Herbert has showed adequate mobility throughout his Oregon career and entered the Rose Bowl with 32 rushes of 10-plus yards and 10 touchdowns. Against the Badgers, running became the featured component of his skill set.
With the Ducks trailing 27-21 midway through the fourth quarter, Herbert broke off a 30-yard touchdown run, his third rushing TD of the game. That excellent run—complete with a terrific stiff arm—stood as the game-winning score.
But the Ducks weren't in position to win the Rose Bowl because of Herbert. They mustered only 204 yards of offense on 51 snaps, averaging exactly four yards per play. Oregon's defense and special teams punished Wisconsin with four takeaways, and the Ducks turned them into 21 pivotal points.
On this day, Herbert made the decisive plays and deserves full credit. With that said, relying that much on points off turnovers is not a sustainable way to win—particularly not in the NFL, where Herbert will next suit up.
In the last two seasons, Herbert had plenty of games with a decent box score but a performance that left Oregon fans wishing for a little bit more.
In 2018, for example, Herbert played poorly in losses to Washington State and Arizona that cost Oregon a shot at a Pac-12 title. Then in 2019, he threw two interceptions during an upset loss to Arizona State that prevented the Ducks from reaching the College Football Playoff.
"Herbert is a tough evaluation," NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah said after the ASU defeat. "Very rarely see him sit in pocket and scan the field. Bunch of 1st read throws and quick hitters. Some wow throws and awful misses."
Immediately after a superb opening drive, Herbert showed one of those awful misses.
Among his other mistakes, Herbert also took a seemingly disastrous sack in the fourth quarter when trailing 27-21 and facing a 3rd-and-2 at Wisconsin's 35-yard line.
Though he didn't have an open receiver and wisely didn't force a pass, Herbert didn't throw the ball away either. It's an inexcusable decision for a quarterback to make in that situation. Rather than having a fourth-down opportunity, the Ducks punted.
After that play, Oregon sat with 132 yards on 40 plays. Had the defense not forced a fumble on Wisconsin's next drive, who knows whether Herbert would have had the opportunity for a go-ahead score.
Yes, Herbert redeemed himself on Oregon's final drive, hitting Mycah Pittman and Juwan Johnson for crucial first downs. And, yes, it's completely fine Herbert's mobility helped the Ducks more than his arm talent. Winning is the goal.
As it relates to the NFL, though, a final score is barely a part of the discussion.
Whichever team selects Herbert will be paying him primarily for his arm, and the Rose Bowl didn't offer glowing praise for it. Even limited to his draft-eligible 2018 and 2019 seasons, Herbert left a similar feeling in several marquee games.
The Ducks left Pasadena with a victory, and that—for now—is most important. But this time around, Herbert's performance left NFL viewers hoping for a little bit more.
Like it or not, that's his scale now.