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Oregon’s gritty Rose Bowl win shows a team poised for a breakthrough

The old bowl shook. Thousands of Midwesterners clad in Wisconsin red were doing their thing, lifting themselves off the cement in unison to the pounding bass of House of Pain’s “Jump Around” with their team leading by a field goal late in the third quarter.

Oregon’s offense had touched the ball three plays the entire second half, and the Badgers were about to mount yet another efficient drive that felt like an hourglass. The game flow said the first Rose Bowl Game of the 2020s was headed toward the predictable Pac-12 disappointment that defined the aughts, but at least the Ducks’ shiny Nike helmets reflected the orange sunset falling behind the San Gabriel Mountains.

The game was not nearly as picturesque. It was brutal, the way the Badgers have liked it for three decades now, the way Mario Cristobal’s Ducks are learning to like it. Oregon trailed by six in the middle of the fourth quarter, Wisconsin had the ball again, and somebody had to do something or it would soon be over.

Then a couple of kids from Oregon — natives of the actual state, not just attendees of the university with the Phil Knight-created football factory — swooped in. Brady Breeze, a junior safety from Lake Oswego, forced a fumble on a jet sweep at the Wisconsin 30-yard line. On the next play, Justin Herbert, a senior quarterback from Eugene, faked a handoff and darted to his right toward daylight and galloped for what would be the game-winning touchdown.

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Oregon stole the 106th “Granddaddy of Them All” from Wisconsin, turning three Badgers turnovers into three touchdowns in a 28-27 victory that made a statement the statistics could not support on their own.

“The Oregon Ducks are the leaders of the West Coast, and I think everyone is kind of realizing that,” Oregon offensive guard Shane Lemieux said. “We’re the up-and-coming program. We won the Rose Bowl. And I think the way we’re recruiting, we’re not even close to being where we should be.”

It was easy to get caught up in the hype afterward in the Oregon locker room, where the Ducks posed for pictures with red roses poking from their mouths and grooved to booming hip hop.

“That’s two rings!” exclaimed one fluffed-up Duck, referring to the back-to-back wins over top-10 opponents that made them Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champions.

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No. 6 Oregon (12-2) will be voted into the top five, a stylish finish to Cristobal’s second season. Those results, combined with the Ducks’ momentum in recruiting, particularly in Cristobal’s declared “home state” of Southern California, have made them the Pac-12’s best candidate — by far — to produce a national contender in the coming years.

“For all the recruits out there, this is it, man. This is Oregon,” said sophomore left tackle Penei Sewell, named this year’s Outland Trophy winner as the nation’s top interior lineman. “We ain’t going nowhere but up from here.”

Highlights from Oregon’s win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl on Wednesday.

With Washington transitioning from Chris Petersen to Jimmy Lake, Stanford suddenly stumbling under David Shaw and USC giving Clay Helton another year, Oregon and Cristobal are set up to rule. But can they improve to a level where they don’t drop a game like that one at Arizona State, a loss which kept them from the College Football Playoff this season? How soon can they compete with the Southern bloc that has lorded over the sport for more than a decade now?

The Rose Bowl win over No. 8 Wisconsin (10-4) was important for show, but the numbers spelled out a murkier reality.

The Badgers had 322 yards to the Ducks’ 204. Wisconsin controlled the ball for 38 minutes. Oregon averaged just 2.2 yards per rush and could not get yards when it needed them up the middle of the Wisconsin defense.

That isn’t a good sign for the Ducks, who lose five of their top six offensive linemen to graduation and will be counting on Sewell’s monstrous talent to lead a quick turnaround this offseason.

The Rose Bowl soon will have competition in SoFi Stadium as the top football venue in town, and officials prepare for the changing landscape.

“We take pride in being a physical team,” said offensive guard Dallas Warmack, a transfer from Alabama. “We want the whole nation to know that we’re physical and just because we’re in the Pac-12, we play just as well as any other SEC or ACC team.”

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The Ducks deserve credit for holding Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor, the back-to-back Doak Walker Award winner, to 94 yards on 21 carries. And, of course, for being opportunistic, which is a quality the great programs somehow conjure up when things look bleak.

Like in the third quarter, when Breeze picked up a fumbled punt snap by Wisconsin and carried it in from 31 yards out to give Oregon a short-lived 21-17 lead.

Herbert did not have a passing day that will excite NFL scouts, completing 14 of 20 passes for 138 yards and an interception, but he rushed for three touchdowns to make up for it.

Cristobal got plenty of attention this week for his successful recruitment of California, but it was two Oregon players who dreamed their entire lives of being Ducks and playing in a Rose Bowl that got them this win.

“We’ve been down and out,” Breeze said. “We’ve had three head coaches in four years. Seeing them run out the clock at the end, it was amazing to see. Everyone cheering and high-fiving and people crying because we’ve been through so much — 4-8 my freshman year.”

Redshirt junior tight end Devin Asiasi announces on social media he’s giving up his final year of eligibility at UCLA to enter the 2020 NFL draft.

A year from now, the Rose Bowl will host a CFP semifinal. Oregon would like to be there. Is it feasible?

“We know we have a good football team, and we know we’ve done all the things in regard to becoming physical, disciplined, tough, with so much room to grow,” Cristobal said.

“And we go hard now. What we do is not kind and cuddly, and it’s certainly not for everybody. So we all stuck to a blueprint that is as demanding as it gets and that will push you right to the edge until you get a breakthrough. That’s what these guys had.”


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