In a Rose Bowl most improbable victory, a new chapter went down in the annals of Oregon football history.
The lucky Ducks, behind a courageous, gutty effort by their defense, overcame the Wisconsin Badgers, and themselves, with a 28-27 win that was in doubt until the final minute of the game.
Oregon’s offense, traditionally the heart and soul of its football machine, took a step back, gratefully, to the defense that set up three touchdowns with an interception and two fumble recoveries, one of which Brady Breeze picked up and ran in to put the Ducks back into the lead in the third quarter.
The Ducks offense actually played poorly outside of not incurring a penalty. Oregon only had two penalties for 20 yards while Wisconsin had nine for 79 yards, mostly in critical situations, the most serious being an offensive pass interference penalty that put the Badgers back to a third-and-long situation on their last possession of the game when they only needed a field goal to win the game.
Justin Herbert had a poor performance statistically, but when you bring heart into the equation, he was A+. He ran for three touchdowns, two where he demonstrated the Heisman stiff-arm he would have shown had he been invited to New York a couple of weeks ago.
But, as for Herbert and the rest of the Ducks, individual stats and honors don’t matter as much as team and victory. In that light, Herbert completed 14-of-20 throws for 138 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
What Herbert did do was rush nine times for 29 yards and three scores and you have to give coach Mario Cristobal credit for finally allowing Herbert to get in on the action as a contributor to a running attack that lacked balance and explosion many times during the regular season. This game was an example.
For the Wisconsin football analyst, there will be some frustration as the Badgers' play calling lurched from dynamic to somnolent and in the end, there were questions of why Wisconsin coaches were going to the Air Raid when running the football was causing the Ducks fatigue. In its final thre drives, Wisconsin’s offense had 12 plays with not enough yardage to avoid three straight punts. As the fourth quarter wore on, Wisconsin’s offense unraveled and the Ducks defense became stronger, more aggressive and the deciding factor in the outcome.
Wisconsin all-American running back Jonathon Taylor was held to 94 yards on 21 carries after averaging over 140 per game during the regular season. His longest run was 18 yards. Part of that was the Ducks defense and part of it was Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst’s decision to spread the ball around among ball carriers instead of riding his stud to the end.
As the first half ended, Justin Herbert downed the ball for a five-yard loss, leaving the Ducks with a hefty hundred for the whole first half. He did it again the last two plays of the game so you could add 15 yards to Oregon’s miserly total of 204 yards in offense.
There were some bright spots: Herbert ran the Ducks smartly down the field after the opening kickoff and Oregon had a 7-0 lead on 12 plays, mostly on passes. Herbert ran the ball in on a keeper for the score and everyone was asking why wasn’t he given more opportunities to do that during the regular season? It looked like a great day for a football game amidst the San Gabriel Mountains.
In the first half the offense took a knee and the defense provided the big plays: a fumble and interception that kept the game from getting out of hand. The bright spots ended there — the kickoff team gave up the Ducks’ first lead with a 95-yard return right after their first score and any momentum to be had was then long gone. This was the case again after the Ducks’ next score (another stiff-arming scamper by Herbert), when the kickoff team gave up another long return to midfield that put the Badgers in position to squeeze out a go-ahead score right as the half ended, putting Wisconsin in the driver’s seat, ahead 17-14.
On both returns the Badgers double-teamed one of the outside defenders off the field, giving the returner plenty of room to scamper down the sidelines. If there was ever a reason to have a kicker capable of putting the ball into the end zone, the two returns, both of which lead to enemy scores, were two examples of why you want one.
It wasn’t all on the kicker though, because Wisconsin’s blockers wanted it more than the Ducks’ cover team, which to slow down a bit and use their hands to ward off the blockers. Being gunned up and wanting to stone somebody is no excuse for sloppy fundamentals.
After converting their first two third-down conversion tries, the Ducks went zero for the next five, including a fourth-and-one in Badger territory. For the game, Oregon was a poor 3-of-11 on third and fourth-down conversions while the Badgers were a lot better with 9-of-18.
Cristobal is absolutely stubborn about running inside the tackles in a short-yardage situation, and once again (actually for the fourth time in three other crucial games), the Ducks offensive line could not move a defense dug deeply in the trenches. It would also be helpful to have a tank hitting the inside gap instead of a jeep if you’re going to run in on an overloaded defense. One weakness of the Oregon arsenal is the lack of a big-body running back.
Any kind of outside play would be preferred, perhaps even a pass, but that choice seems to be a concession and Cristobal and his offensive line will not concede to anybody, even when there’s too many defenders in the running lane to be blocked. It’s not that the Ducks aren’t good, because they are, but what is not respected is that the guys across the line of scrimmage are good too, maybe even better sometimes.
Herbert’s running, which has to be considered effective (scoring three times in seven carries), helped loosen the big boys up front and running back CJ Verdell was finally able to find some daylight in the Badger defense. Oregon was only able to rush for 66 yards but Wisconsin was only able to get 136. The Ducks' excuse was that they only possessed the ball for 51 plays while the Badgers had 72 opportunities.
Cristobal was excessively ecstatic at the trophy presentation and you could see why his players love him and love playing for him. This Duck team is a fascinating blend of youth, talent and grizzled veterans who came out of a 4-8 season their freshman year and paid the price to become champions. It is to the head coach’s credit, his work ethic and integrity that drove the program from the depths of despair to that of Rose Bowl champions.