PASADENA, Calif. — Mario Cristobal’s bowl experience runs the gamut.
Oregon’s second-year coach played in the Sugar and Orange Bowls on national championship teams at Miami, coached in the Little Caesars Pizza and Beef Beef O’Brady’s Bowls at Florida International and was part of a College Football Playoff title run as an Alabama assistant.
Now Cristobal — who was on the losing side of the Las Vegas Bowl in his first game after replacing Willie Taggart and wearing a winning smile after last year’s Redbox Bowl — gets to experience “The Granddaddy of Them All.”
The seventh-ranked Ducks (11-2), five years removed from their historic victory here in a national semifinal, will face No. 11 Wisconsin on Wednesday in the Rose Bowl (2 p.m., ESPN).
“Well, it's progress,” Cristobal said of Oregon's return to the national stage. “It's what we had hoped for. We always want to keep it on that kind of a trajectory. I think it's a tribute, a testament to the players and the coaches to buying into a blueprint and a regimen that's very difficult and demanding but can be rewarding.
“It gives you a great opportunity, as long as you stick with it and do your very best.”
The seniors that stuck together through three coaching changes have been the leaders of the program’s resurgence this season.
The usually stoic Justin Herbert was wiping away tears on Monday while watching video messages from Justin Wilcox, Joey Harrington and others filmed by the Pac-12 Networks.
“This is everything that I ever hoped for,” Herbert said. “This is the experience that we wanted when a lot of us decided to come back and this is the potential 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.”
Senior offensive linemen Brady Aiello, Jake Hanson, Shane Lemieux and Calvin Throckmorton have been along for the ride with the starting quarterback from the excruciating 4-8 season to the exhilarating victory over Utah in the Pac-12 championship game.
The veteran unit, headlined by Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell, paved the way for CJ Verdell’s 208-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Utes’ top-ranked rushing defense to clinch Oregon’s eighth Rose Bowl berth in the event’s 106-game history.
“Definitely surreal,” Lemieux said of the journey. “I love this program to death. I’d do anything for this program, I’d do anything for coach Cristobal, I’d do anything for my teammates. I am going to leave it on the field.
“I owe it to my brothers and my teammates and I owe it for wearing the ‘O’ on my chest.”
Senior linebacker Troy Dye has led the defense in tackles under three different defensive coordinators.
Three years after the Ducks finished 126th in points allowed (41.4 per game) and yards allowed (518.4 per game), Oregon is eighth in points allowed (15.7 per game) and 23rd in yards allowed (329.6 per game) under first-year coordinator Andy Avalos.
“I know he’s had a lot of different coaches throughout his career. He was one of the first guys when I got hired that came in and wanted to get better,” first-year linebackers coach Ken Wilson said of Dye, who also had Brady Hoke (2016) and Jim Leavitt (2017-18) as defensive coordinators. “When I was here that first month and just trying to get my feet wet, on Saturdays he would come in and watch film with me. I appreciated that from him that he was open to doing that.”
Dye benefited from an influx of elite talent on defense, including rising star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Oregon will have its hands full with Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor, whose 6,080 career rushing yards rank sixth in FBS history. The junior has 1,909 rushing yards and leads the country with 26 total touchdowns this season.
The Badgers (10-3) also have another imposing offensive line led by center Tyler Biadasz, a unanimous all-American along with Taylor.
“They try to get you by breaking down the from and big ol’ linemen moving and chip blocking and common blocking and all that,” said Thibodeaux, the Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year. “But if you can hold down the front and maintain the gaps, we should be good.”
Junior quarterback Jack Coan has been efficient in the balanced Wisconsin attack, completing 70.1% of his passes for 2,541 yards with 17 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Herbert has completed 66.7% of his passes for 3,333 yards with 32 touchdowns and five interceptions.
The Badgers are only giving up 16.1 points (10th) and 293.5 points (eighth) per game.
“I mean, he's as good a quarterback as there is in the country,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said of Herbert, a projected NFL first-round pick. “And I know there's a lot of really good quarterbacks. I'm not trying to make news that way, but he's talented. I think he's got a great sense of what they're trying to do offensively.
“It seems to me he's a guy that will do all he can to get everyone else involved and certainly talented and presents a ton of challenges. He's a heck of a quarterback.”
The 6-foot-6, 237-pound Herbert will try to join Marcus Mariota (2015), Darron Thomas (2012) and Shy Huntington (1917) as the only Oregon starting quarterbacks to win a Rose Bowl.
If the Ducks prevail, Cristobal would join Hugo Bezdek, Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich as the only Oregon head coaches to win the Rose Bowl.
“When you have a game that's known as ‘The Granddaddy of Them All’ it kind of speaks for itself, right?” Cristobal said. “It's an unbelievable moment for our football team.”
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @RGDuckFootball and email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.