Paul Chryst, Wisconsin’s coach, was livid over a referee’s call in the last four minutes that overturned a first-down pass completion to the 37-yard line with the Badgers down by only a point in the Rose Bowl. The call was offensive pass interference and the Badgers were forced to punt to the grateful Ducks with 2:38 left in the game.
In the NCAA rule book, offensive pass interference is defined as: ARTICLE 8…b. Offensive pass interference is contact by a Team A player beyond the neutral zone that interferes with a Team B player during a legal forward pass play in which the forward pass crosses the neutral zone. It is the responsibility of the offensive player to avoid the opponents.
One of Chryst’s receivers ran into a Duck defensive back attempting to cover on the play and the penalty was called by a member of the SEC officiating crew, a call a Badger would call ticky-tacky and a Duck would call within the “full intent of the rules.”
Oregon forced the punt and held on for a thrilling 28-27 win over a truly tough Big Ten team. Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert was named the game’s most valuable offensive player, partly earned on the Ducks’ last drive when he completed two passes for 40 yards that helped burn the clock. Up to that drive, Oregon’s mighty offense had struggled, gaining 166 yards in total, including only seven on three plays in the third quarter.
If Washington Husky coach Don James was still with us, he would remind Chryst that a team should not put themselves in a position where an official’s call might cost them a game. This call had a devastating impact on the Badgers: the ball would have been around the Wisconsin 40-yard line with two minutes left, needing only to get into field goal range for a chance at the win.
Wisconsin fans might pause their whining to consider that the Badgers had nine penalties for 79 yards, including two holding calls that nullified 12-yard gains by all-American running back Jonathon Taylor. The Ducks were the disciplined group, having only two calls for 20 yards.
Turnovers were big also: the Badgers lost three fumbles and an interception and the Ducks gave up an interception and were stopped on downs. The game was decided by turnovers: Oregon scored 21 points off three-of-four Wisconsin miscues while the Badgers could only get three points off two Duck turnovers.
Play calling by Wisconsin might also be suspect, as it seemed Chryst got away from Taylor, in the same way Oregon’s Mario Cristobal often did during the regular season with Herbert. In the Badgers’ last three drives of the game, with the score at 28-27, Taylor only handled the ball four times out of 13 plays.
Oregon defensive coordinator Andy Avalos was happy to defend Wisconsin’s quarterback throwing the ball in a pass offense even more limited than that of the Ducks instead of Taylor. Jack Coan, who is not on any all-American lists, averaged only 5.3 yards per attempt and 8.1 per completion. Oregon’s 6.6 per attempt and 9.9 per completion, meager in its own right, seemed almost gaudy by comparison.
Cristobal and his offensive line were talking pregame about how excited they were to take on the physicality of Wisconsin’s nationally-ranked run defense and by the end of the game they could bask in 66 yards and a 2.2 yard per play average, much like last year’s muted face off with Michigan State’s great run defense where they eked out 58 yards. There might have been excitement for the men in the trenches, but not for anyone else.
Oregon’s rushing stats were padded by the 47 yards and three touchdowns Herbert gained running the option — without that element of a complete run-first offense, the Ducks would have been thrashed; Herbert made that much of a difference.
For the Ducks, other big-time difference was the defense. First, limiting Taylor to only 94 yards on 21 carries; only two gains over 10 yards, the longest 18 yards — not bad for containing what many called the best running back in the nation. By observation, it was the same kind of defensive gem the Ducks spun against the top runner in the Pac-12 in the conference championship against Utah.
The two best teams on the field were Wisconsin and Oregon’s defenses. The Badgers had only six pass plays and three runs over ten yards while the Ducks were worse: five pass and two running plays, which included the 30-yard game winning gallop by Herbert. Oregon’s two running backs were only able to scrounge 2.9 per rush on 18 carries against the formidable Badger defense.
Special teams played an important part in this great game: the Badgers ran a kickoff back 95-yards for a score right after the Ducks took the lead on their first drive of the game. Before halftime, after another Oregon tally, Wisconsin ran the kickoff back 47-yards to set up a go-ahead score just before halftime. With nine of eleven players blocked, it was the worst coverage by the Duck kickoff team after a season in which they continually afforded their defense with good field position.
Not to be outdone, the Ducks just happened to have a punt rush on when the Badger’s punter bobbled the snap, and the UW protective shield was punctured by Haki Woods, Juwan Johnson and Brady Breeze, who one-handed the loose ball and took it in for a score that put the Ducks back in front 21-17, in a game that had six lead changes.
As the minutes ticked away and Oregon only gaining 32 yards in the third quarter and six minutes of the fourth, punter Blake Maimone’s kick was downed on the Wisconsin four-yard line and in the Badgers’ final three drives of the game, they could not advance beyond their own 37-yard line.
The senior punter did this consistently during the regular season, and he will be a difficult clutch kicker to replace next season. Although no one knew it at the time, Maimone’s kick was a final dagger to Wisconsin’s hope for a comeback victory — it’s hard to do starting from your own four-yard line.
So much has been written and argued about the Oregon offense this season. For those who think it’s dynamic and worthy of college playoff consideration, they might burn all the film except those three plays Herbert ran into the end zone.
On his last score, the outside linebacker and safety were sprinting so fast to the left to catch CJ Verdell from behind on Cristobal’s traditional first-down line plunge, they could only turn their heads as Oregon’s favorite sped the other way, to the outside, where he stiff armed one would be tackler. Under full speed, he was then escorted into the end zone, untouched, by excellent blocking by receivers Mycah Pittman and Johnny Johnson III.
The funny thing is that on his three scoring runs, Herbert looked like a college man outrunning high school kids; after all, he’s 6-6 and 237 pounds. The plays didn’t look dangerous—maybe for the defenders, but certainly not for Oregon’s quarterback, who is bigger than any Duck running back.
Oddly, offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo and Cristobal did not often throw the ball down the field deeper than 12-yards. For that reason, enemy defenders dropped to 12 and dug in; why bother with a cushion when Herbert won’t throw deep?
Part of the problem may be Herbert’s poor accuracy with deep throws, but it’s difficult to believe that’s because he wasn’t capable athletically. For Justin, there was some inconsistency in offensive philosophy because there were three different head coaches in his four-year career. He did, however, have the same quarterback coach for three of those years and Herbert did not show growth you might expect in his footwork and throwing skills.
Perhaps Cristobal or Arroyo was shielding Herbert from contact, although there was not equal consideration given the running backs that were expected to run over stacked defenses that outnumbered their offensive blockers in short yardage situations. In that case, have another quarterback to run the goal line offense, like the Saints do with their backup quarterback.
But all that is in the past. If Arroyo called the three quarterback option runs that won the Rose Bowl; all is forgiven. If it was Cristobal, maybe he learned that to be a complete “run first” offense, you must also have the quarterback as a threat to run. Look at the four teams that made the college playoffs: each had a quarterback who would, every once in a while, threaten the defense and take heat off the inside run game. It’s not that dangerous if you don’t try to be a hero and run over a tackler. It’s certainly safer that dropping back to pass behind a blocker who can’t pick up a pass stunt or stay with a rushing defensive end.
Watching the players and Cristobal dancing around with each other after the game showed the close relationships he and his staff have built with the Ducks. For that, and this season, he should get full credit for a job well done. Cristobal works his charges hard, but it looks like they also have some fun doing it and the courageous effort they laid out in the Rose Bowl will reverberate for years to come.
The next challenge will be to do it again.
The crucial stats for the Wisconsin game:
No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play)—Wisconsin 4.5; Oregon 4.0 (Wisconsin-leader wins 86 percent of the time, but not this time)
No. 2 (efficiency, 3 rd-4 th down conversion—Oregon-3-11-27.3 percent; Wisconsin 9-of-22-40 percent (Wisconsin-leader wins 83 percent of the time, but not this time)
No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) –Oregon-5-of-6-83 percent; Wisconsin 3-of-4-75 percent (Oregon-leader wins 75 percent of the time)
No. 4 (average field position) –Oregon—42.7-yard line; Wisconsin 43.1-yard line (Wisconsin-leader wins 72 percent of the time, but not this time)
No. 5 (turnover margin) –Oregon-2; Wisconsin 4 (Oregon-leader wins 73 percent of the time)
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years. His final coach's corner is from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 8, at the 6th Street Grill.