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Browning, Herbert careers rooted in Washington-Oregon rivalry

Oregon QB Justin Herbert got his first start in a 70-21 blowout loss to Washington. Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire

Two years ago, in the middle of an already -- and uncharacteristically -- lost season, Oregon started looking toward the future.

The Ducks named Justin Herbert, then a scrawny and unpolished 6-foot-5 true freshman, as starting quarterback the week of their home game against No. 5-ranked Washington. Herbert had thrown only five passes in his fledgling college career, all in the fourth quarter of an 18-point loss at Washington State the previous week.

What followed was one of the lowest moments in the recent history of Oregon football.

Herbert threw an interception on the first play of the game, an appropriately inauspicious start to a 70-21 defeat to the Huskies that snapped Oregon's 12-game winning streak in the rivalry and signaled a dramatic shift in power in the Pac-12 conference.

That miserable afternoon at Autzen Stadium triggered a cascade of changes at Oregon, many that have fueled the surprisingly quick rebuild of the Ducks with Herbert at the helm. Now Washington returns to Autzen on Saturday in a showdown of ranked teams still nursing playoff hopes and looking for some clarity on the hierarchy in the league's North division.

"That was definitely a tough experience, but we learned a lot from it," Herbert told reporters this week, recalling that 2016 loss to the Huskies. "I think over the years we've really gotten close. This team has shown how tough it is."

In this rematch, Herbert and the 17th-ranked Ducks are much better suited for the challenge posed by the No. 7 Huskies: Herbert is the Pac 12's most-efficient quarterback, leading the league's highest-scoring (45.6 points per game) and most-productive offense (503.6 yards) midway through the season.

They'll find themselves up against Washington's league-best defense (304.5 yards per game) in the latest update of the classic "unstoppable force vs. immovable object" paradox.

"He's special, there's no question about it," Washington head coach Chris Petersen said of Herbert. "He played good against us that first time, I remember thinking that. It was his first time playing and he played well. And he's continued to trend up from there."

For the Huskies, that rout in Eugene was the culmination of a rebuild under Petersen that had roots in a similar transition to a true freshman quarterback a couple of years earlier.

Jake Browning was the foundation of Petersen's first full recruiting class in 2015, becoming the first true freshman in Huskies history to start a season opener later that fall. Browning entered the game against Oregon with modest but promising numbers: He was completing 62 percent of his passes for an average of 226 yards per game and had thrown as many touchdowns as interceptions (5).

That drizzly night in Seattle signaled a subtle shift in the rivalry, with Browning leading the Huskies to within a score of the Ducks in a 26-20 defeat after more than a decade of losing games that were no closer than 17 points.

"It was close until the very end," Petersen said. "We weren't skilled enough yet in terms of finishing out those kinds of games. But we were probably closer than people gave us credit for."

At Autzen Stadium the next year, Browning and the Huskies finally broke through in that cathartic 49-point beatdown of Oregon.

Browning passed for a school-record six touchdowns and ran for two more, the first a 1-yarder where he pointed at a Ducks defender while crossing the goal line. That bit of uncharacteristic brashness from Browning drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that nonetheless galvanized the Huskies, who went on to win the Pac-12 and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.

"That was pretty much making a statement, like, 'We got you this year,'" then-senior defensive end Joe Mathis told reporters after the game.

Meanwhile, the ascendance of Herbert came in the midst of the decline of the Ducks' dynasty. Herbert threw for 179 yards and two touchdowns in the loss, the lone bright spot in the most lopsided outcome in the 116-year history of the series. A day later, the Oregonian's headline for the game story read "ROCK BOTTOM?"

"I apologize for that score," then-Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "It's different than a normal loss, no question."

Helfrich was fired at the end of that season, paving the way for new head coach Willie Taggart and co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal to work with Herbert in 2017. Together they won four of their first five games, but Herbert missed the next five games with a collarbone injury, and the Ducks lost four of those including a 38-3 humiliation at Washington. Taggart's surprising exit for Florida State in December gave Cristobal the opportunity to take over as head coach.

His inheritance of Herbert has given them an opportunity to finally tap into those gifts that they -- and even Petersen, who showed interest late in his recruitment -- glimpsed when he was starring in high school in Eugene, an undervalued prospect who picked the hometown Ducks over Nevada, Montana State, Northern Arizona and Portland State.

"Justin has come a long way," Cristobal said. "He's done such a good job as a competitor, allowing us to coach him and coach him hard. But I also think he has a process that we trust as well."

Today Herbert is listed an inch taller at 6-foot-6, has added almost 20 pounds to get up to 233, and has the production to match his potential, setting a school record by surpassing 5,000 career passing yards one game faster than 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota.

"He looks even better than last year," said ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper, who moved up Herbert six spots to No. 8 -- and the top quarterback -- in his most-recent ranking of the Top 25 draft prospects. "He's more poised, more in control of everything. Come April, he'll probably be in the top five."

And if not for an inexplicable fourth-quarter implosion against Stanford last month, the Ducks would be undefeated, the Pac-12's best hope for the CFP, and Herbert -- fighting skepticism of Oregon's weak nonconference schedule and the relative obscurity of playing on the West Coast -- might have a better shot at the Heisman.

But Saturday, in this tale of two quarterbacks and rival programs, Herbert and the Ducks will again be an underdog to Browning and the Huskies.

Browning recently became the all-time leading passer in school history at a program with a legacy of prolific passers like Warren Moon, Jake Locker and Brock Huard, and now has the distinction of being the quarterback who helped Peterson restore Washington to national prominence.

Kiper is less enthused about Browning's NFL chances ("As a pro prospect, you've got to temper things a bit. ... I think he's a good Day 3 prospect"), but in Seattle they have a deep appreciation for the role he has played in the Huskies' resurgence.

"He was in there last night, going through different stuff and game planning, and I thought, 'Man, how are we gonna get this done next year?'" Peterson said. "He brings so much to the table."