- Jan. 1, 2020
PASADENA, Calif. — If it was not exactly a decisive moment in the 106th Rose Bowl game, it was nevertheless a moment for which these Oregon Ducks had been built.
Their wild uniforms notwithstanding — emerald and lime green outfits with metallic silver helmets were plucked from the closet on Wednesday — these Ducks are no longer Chip Kelly’s Ducks, the ones who left defenders’ heads spinning and lungs wheezing.
These Ducks would rather run over an opponent than around them.
As proof, they have a quarterback, Justin Herbert, who at the start of the season was considered likely to be the top pick in the N.F.L. draft, and yet the Ducks have treated him like an accouterment to the real stars of their offense. They would be the 300-pound maulers on the line, which is anchored by the sophomore tackle Penei Sewell, who won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best interior lineman.
“The stereotype of the Pac-12?” Jim Leonhard, the Wisconsin defensive coordinator, asked earlier this week. “That’s a joke to me, because it takes watching about two plays on film before you realize how physical this team is on both sides of the ball.”
So, here it was midway through the second quarter, and the Ducks were facing fourth and 1 at the Wisconsin 27. There was no question that Oregon would go for a first down — and only a minuscule one about what kind of play would be run.
When the ball was snapped, running back C.J. Verdell took a handoff from Herbert and charged up the middle — with the help of a block by an in-motion receiver, Juwan Johnson — until he ran into a wall of Wisconsin defenders who stuffed him short.
The play was one of many in which the Badgers, runners-up to Ohio State in the Big Ten, established themselves as the more powerful team, but four turnovers (along with nine penalties and a missed field goal) handed the Ducks a lifeline they used to rally for a 28-27 victory before a crowd of 90,462 in another sublime New Year’s Day setting.
The last miscue — a fumble by receiver Danny Davis on a fly sweep midway through the fourth quarter — proved to be the difference. Herbert raced 30 yards on the next play, scoring his third touchdown and putting Oregon ahead by a point with less than eight minutes left.
Another fumble led even more directly to a score when safety Brady Breeze scooped up the ball after Wisconsin punter Anthony Lotti dropped it, racing 31 yards for a third-quarter touchdown.
Somehow, the Ducks managed to win with only 204 yards in total offense — the fewest by a team in the Rose Bowl since 1979. Seventy-five of those yards came on a game-opening touchdown drive.
“Wisconsin — shout out to them,” Sewell said. “They had a game plan and came with it. I guess that’s that.”
The Ducks, who had not played in a major bowl since being trounced by Ohio State for the national championship after the 2014 season, had hoped to mark their return to national prominence with an emphatic performance.
Instead, they settled for snatching a win while being outplayed.
Of course, the Ducks understand how Wisconsin feels — Oregon blew a 15-point lead against Auburn in its season opener. A loss on Wednesday would have provided another demerit on the standing of the Pac-12 Conference, which has not had a team in the College Football Playoff for three years and saw its next-best teams — Utah and Southern California — get thrashed in bowl games by Texas and Iowa, respectively.
As Oregon has tried to rebuild into a national title contender, from a 4-8 season in 2016, it has not looked back to the days when Kelly and his successor, Mark Helfrich, used blur-speed offenses to carry the Ducks into a pair of national title games. Instead, Oregon has gazed to the Midwest and South — hoping to model the success of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.
“If we want to compete on a national level, we have to be big and strong in the trenches,” Shane Lemieux, the senior left guard, said on Monday. “Previously, Oregon’s been known as a bubble-screen team, they want to run tempo. There are a lot of fans saying we’re not scoring 50 points. But the blueprint of our team is really just to win. We don’t really need style anymore.”
The architect of this stylistic transformation is the second-year coach, Mario Cristobal.
He is, not surprisingly, a former offensive lineman at the University of Miami, where he was on two national championship teams. And he won another as the offensive line coach at Alabama, where he coached for four seasons.
Cristobal also arrived in Eugene, first as an assistant to Willie Taggart — who in 2017 had replaced the fired Helfrich — with a reputation as an ace recruiter. Thus far, he has proved adept at bringing elite talent to Eugene: with 20 four-star recruits and one five-star recruit — freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux — from the previous two recruiting classes, according to 247sports rankings.
(Two more five-star linebackers — Justin Flowe and Sewell’s younger brother, Noah — have signed for next season, along with four-star quarterback Jay Butterfield, the third-rated pro-style quarterback in the nation.)
The foundation, though, is at the line of scrimmage.
“It was all about the physicality in the trenches and what a difference that makes — not only late in the game, but late in the season, right?” Cristobal said, adding: “Our trips out to the West Coast, when I was in Tuscaloosa, I felt that was the X-factor. Right, wrong, indifferent — that was the feeling.”
It hardly played out that way on Wednesday.
In addition to stuffing Verdell, Wisconsin converted four fourth downs — including one when Mason Stokke bulled into the end zone over right guard for a 2-yard score that put the Badgers ahead late in the third quarter.
And Badgers receiver Quintez Cephus — who absorbed a crunching hit to secure a touchdown catch with 11 seconds left in the first half — later left another stamp on the game when he flattened Breeze, the Oregon safety, after catching a short pass and turning upfield.
But Breeze picked himself up and when it mattered most in the fourth quarter, he stripped Davis of the ball and Bryson Young fell on it to set up Herbert. For one day, at least, the Ducks were content that the game was not won or lost where they wanted it to be — in the trenches.