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Badgers must corral Oregon senior quarterback Justin Herbert in Rose Bowl
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Badgers must corral Oregon senior quarterback Justin Herbert in Rose Bowl

Justin Herbert photo

PASADENA, Calif. — Justin Herbert’s attitude screams quarterback, even when he’s not in his helmet and shoulder pads.

From how he sits — straight up and assertive — and fields questions, the direct answers he provides and how he commands a crowd, it makes sense he’s a person his Oregon football teammates follow. His attitude and strong play on the field have led the No. 7 Ducks (11-2) to the Rose Bowl against the University of Wisconsin (10-3) and have him rated among the top quarterback prospects in this spring’s NFL draft.

His reverence for his role on the team is a major reason why he didn’t think about sitting out this game like a number of highly-regarded college players have in recent seasons.

“This is the Rose Bowl. This is everything we’ve ever been working for,” Herbert said. “It never crossed my mind, and I don’t think it ever crossed anyone else’s mind on our team. We’re so excited, and this is such a great opportunity for our team and our program.”

Discussion of his NFL future has followed Herbert the past two seasons. He would’ve likely been a first- or second-round pick if he entered the draft after last season, but he chose to come back for his senior year.

According to his teammates, Herbert downplays what could be next for him.

“To be honest, you wouldn’t even notice he’s a guy like that or focused on the NFL,” running back CJ Verdell said. “It’s about us and about this team, and about whatever he can do to be most ready for the games.”

The Rose Bowl will be the last game at Oregon for Herbert and offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, who accepted the head coaching job at UNLV. Arroyo, who has been the coordinator or co-coordinator at Oregon the past three seasons, spent 2014 as the quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Arroyo said Herbert has developed NFL qualities in the way he processes the game.

“The game slows down every year for a quarterback. And I think that people saw that come to light in regards to making decisions and seeing the field and working together with different guys and different timing,” Arroyo said.

“He’s been fortunate to be around a lot of these guys for that many years. He’s had to work with some new guys throughout the course of the season and through injuries and that happens. I think that he’s done a great job of growing and understanding protections and fronts and understanding down and distance, situational football, things that will help him not only this week but in the future.”

Herbert — a native of Eugene, the town Oregon’s campus is located — has started for four years. His 3,333 passing yards and 32 touchdowns this season are both career highs, and he’s been particularly good in big moments. He had four TD passes at Washington; completed 80.8 percent of his passes and had three scores at USC; and played a big role as a rusher to help the blowout victory against Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

The Badgers have played their fair share of experienced quarterbacks this season. Michigan’s Shea Patterson, Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke and Iowa’s Nate Stanley were all in the third or fourth year as a starter when they lined up against UW.

That experience means tricking Herbert with schemes will be difficult, so execution becomes even more important.

“They make better decisions, they’re very mature,” cornerback Faion Hicks said of playing veteran quarterbacks. “He could’ve left last year. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. It’s hard with him. He does a good job going through his progressions — that’s really what sticks out the most to me.”

Herbert’s ability to run was a key part of Oregon’s game plan in its last game, a win over the Utes to clinch a spot in the Rose Bowl. He had 35 yards on seven carries, but two of those rushes went for first downs and three others set up short-yardage situations. His willingness to keep the ball on read options got Utah off balance and Verdell ended up tallying 208 yards and three scores.

Herbert — listed at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds — isn’t the big-play rushing threat Ohio State’s Justin Fields or Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez are, but UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said Herbert gets back-breaking first downs that can wear a team out.

“He’s more athletic and he can run a little better than teams give him credit for,” Leonhard said. “Anytime you can have a great call … anytime an outside linebacker wins on a pass rush and (Herbert) steps up and runs for a first down, you’ve got him beat and then it is a little bit demoralizing for a defense.”

Herbert said he knows he’s in for a challenge with the UW defense, a unit he calls “as good as they come.” But he’s looking to put an exclamation point on a strong career at Oregon with a good game in the Rose Bowl.

“This is everything that I ever hoped for,” he said. “This is the experience that we wanted when a lot of us decided to come back, and this is the potential that I knew our team had. It’s just been so much fun, and it’s been such a great year, and it’s exactly the reason why I came back.”

A look back: Badgers’ history in Rose Bowl

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