Pac-12 championship game MVP prepared for Wisconsin's physical defense

LOS ANGELES — On paper, it was a risky game plan.

Oregon has one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Justin Herbert. Utah’s physical defense is No. 1 in stopping the run.

And yet it was CJ Verdell who emerged as the most valuable player of the Pac-12 championship game as the 5-foot-9, 210-pound, oft-injured running back gashed the Utes for 208 yards and three touchdowns during the Ducks’ 37-15 victory on Dec. 6 in Santa Clara, Calif.

“I think it does say a lot about our team,” Verdell said Sunday of the decision to attack Utah’s strength. “We’re physical, we’re not going to shy away from anything. Hearing that they were one of the most physical teams, we just wanted to test that a little bit.”

Verdell and the seventh-ranked Ducks (11-2) will be tested again by No. 11 Wisconsin on Wednesday in the Rose Bowl.

The Badgers (10-3) are eighth in the FBS in rushing yards allowed (102.3 per game) and 10th in points allowed (16.1 per game).

Wisconsin outside linebacker Zack Baun has 19.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks this season. Inside linebacker Chris Orr has 72 tackles, including 13.5 for loss and 11.5 sacks.

“When you’re playing in the Rose Bowl, obviously we’re going to be playing against a very good team,” center Jake Hanson said. “They just don’t let anyone play in this game. So it’s going to be a great challenge for us an offensive line, but we’re excited for it.”

Verdell (1,171 yards, eight touchdowns), despite splitting carries with backups Cyrus Habibi-Likio (337 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Travis Dye (655 yards), is the fifth player in Oregon history to produced back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

“I think CJ doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to do it all,” offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo said, noting Verdell’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and to consistently execute his blocks in pass protection. “He’s done an awesome job. Phenomenal. …

“Don’t judge his height. He’s tough, he’s as tough as it gets.”

Oregon’s other running backs with multiple 1,000-yard seasons are Maurice Morris (2000-01), Onterrio Smith (2001-02), LaMichael James (2009-11) and Royce Freeman (2014-15, 2017).

Morris and Smith combined for 140 yards and a touchdown in Oregon’s 2002 Fiesta Bowl victory over Colorado. James had 159 yards and a touchdown in the 2012 Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. Freeman had 44 yards and two touchdowns in the 2015 Rose Bowl victory over Florida State, which was also a College Football Playoff semifinal game.

Verdell, who is from Chula Vista, Calif., is looking to add to the program’s postseason legacy.

“Rose Bowl, the Granddaddy of Them All,” Verdell said. “To be in this one is a great honor. I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”

As a redshirt sophomore, Verdell is eligible for the 2020 NFL draft but he has already made it clear he’ll be playing for the Ducks next season.

“I just feel like I have a lot more to give the university,” Verdell said. “This whole season I’ve always talked about coming back. It never once crossed my mind about leaving.”

Notable

• Oregon’s workout on Sunday morning at Dignity Health Sports Park was the final padded practice before the Rose Bowl.

• Senior right guards Dallas Warmack and Brady Aiello continue to rotate with the regular starting unit of left tackle Penei Sewell, left guard Shane Lemieux, center Jake Hanson and right tackle Calvin Throckmorton.

• Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit, ABC/ESPN’s top college football broadcast team, arrived in Los Angeles in time to watch the Ducks practice on Sunday morning after calling Clemson’s dramatic win over Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal on Saturday night in Phoenix.

Quotable

“I think I’ve watched every single one since I can remember. I know how big of a deal it is,” Herbert on finishing his Oregon career in the Rose Bowl. “We’re honored and so excited to be playing here. Every day in practice we’re thankful for the opportunity to be playing football.”