Ducks are Rose Bowl champs - thanks in large part to Oregon-bred Herbert and Breeze
PASADENA, California — Winning time arrived, and Justin Herbert rose to the occasion and etched his name into Oregon lore alongside the likes of former Duck greats as Rose Bowl champion.
Looking a lot like Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota in the program's previous trip to the Rose Bowl, Herbert scored three touchdowns, ripping off a go-ahead, 30-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown, and Oregon's outstanding defense stopped Wisconsin down the stretch as the Ducks beat the Badgers 28-27 Wednesday.
The win capped a four-year journey for Herbert, veteran offensive linemen, linebacker Troy Dye and other seniors who began their careers when the Ducks hit bottom, going 4-8 in 2016.
And, on the biggest stage yet for any of the Ducks, a kid who prepped at Central Catholic, safety and special teams standout Brady Breeze, starred, scoring on a fumble recovery and forcing the pivotal turnover in the fourth quarter.
Yes, the standout players from the Rose Bowl were both Oregon-raised players — Herbert, from Eugene, and Breeze, from Lake Oswego.
The Ducks finished 12-2, Pac-12 champs and Rose Bowl victors, and they could land in the top five in the final national rankings.
"You couldn't write a better story," said Calvin Throckmorton, a senior offensive lineman. "We're grateful to be part of this."
"I wish it wasn't over. It's been the best four years of my life," Herbert said. "I've been honored to be a part of this team and to represent Eugene and the university. It's humbling, and it's been such a great experience."
"I tell him it's legendary," coach Mario Cristobal said, of Herbert, who grew up a Duck fan. "It's hard to even script this kind of Hollywood story, right? Right down the road, born and raised, just like Brady, been watching Oregon Duck football forever. And they're sitting here in front of you as Rose Bowl champions — not only as Rose Bowl champions but as MVPs of the Rose Bowl after winning the Pac-12 championship."
Added Breeze: "To be able to make plays in the Rose Bowl like that is just incredible."
Oregon scored on its first drive, a 75-yard march that ended with Herbert's first short TD run.
From then on, while the offense managed only 129 yards the rest of the way, the defense battled Wisconsin and QB Jack Coan and running back Jonathan Taylor, who topped 2,000 yards for the season but carved out only 94 yards on 21 carries.
The Ducks forced three turnovers on defense and one on special teams — Breeze's scoop and score from 31 yards after recovering a fumble on a Badgers punt attempt. Two other turnovers led to touchdowns, including Breeze's strip of Danny Davis and Bryson Young's fumble recovery with less than eight minutes left, setting up Herbert's heroic jaunt on the next play.
It was a zone read play to the left and Herbert scampered in for the touchdown. In the fourth quarter of Oregon's Rose Bowl pasting of Florida State in January 2015, Mariota ran to the same spot in the end zone.
"It's a rare opportunity. It's something I haven't experienced too often," Herbert said. "But it was great, and Johnny (Johnson) and Mycah (Pittman) did a great job blocking on the outside. And that's what led me to get in the end zone, and a big thanks to those guys for leading the way."
"Basically a read play, he was looking at the back side, he had dives (blocks) staking it, and he went to the house," Throckmorton said.
It was a defensive battle, and Oregon's defense forced Wisconsin to punt on the next two possessions. And, while the UO offense wouldn't win many style points, the Ducks closed out the game by securing two first downs in the closing minutes on Herbert passes to Mycah Pittman (12 yards) and Juwan Johnson (28 yards).
"It felt awesome," the true freshman Pittman said. "I told Herb before the game, 'I'm going to get you out right.' That was my goal; anything he threw my way I was going to catch. I'm very happy he relied on me and gave me that opportunity. Very happy to ice the game for this team."
Happy players celebrated all over the Rose Bowl field. Dye sobbed joyfully.
"Our guys knew this was going to be a 15-round fight, right? And rounds 10 through 15 usually decide which heavyweight walks away with the hardware," Cristobal said. "And our guys just found a way to keep swinging, get up one more time, throw one more punch. And it's a testament to what they are, what their DNA is."
It wasn't the national championship — that dream died in the desert at Arizona State — but it was a big-time win, following up Rose Bowl wins after the 2014 season (led by Mariota) and 2011 season (led by De'Anthony Thomas, LaMichael James and Kiko Alonso).
Herbert ended being the offensive star with his legs.
"He can beat you in so many ways," Cristobal said. "You see the legs, you see the arm and the decision-making, but what you don't see is the leadership and the heart. And in the end that was the biggest difference, in my opinion."
Said Herbert: "I just hope that we put up more points than the opponent. Whether it's through the air or on the ground, doesn't matter who is scoring them as long as we have more points at the end of the game. The offensive line has done such a great job all year, and those guys don't get enough credit. And they deserve everything."
Herbert's 4-yard TD run made the score 7-0, culminating an opening, 12-play, 75-yard drive.
But, Wisconsin bounced back, quickly, as Aron Cruickshank returned the kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown — the first TD the Ducks have given up on a kickoff return since 2006.
Herbert rifled a pass into the Wisconsin front, and linebacker Jack Sanborn picked him off. But, the UO defense stiffened, and Collin Larsh's field goal made the score 10-7.
Defenses rose up for the rest of the first half, and Oregon benefited from Thomas Graham Jr.'s interception and return late in the first half. The Ducks needed to go only 33 yards, and Herbert scored on a 5-yard TD run.
After a big Cruickshank return, the Badgers went 53 yards to score and lead at halftime. Coan hit Quintez Cephus on an 11-yard TD pass for Wisconsin's 17-14 lead.
The Badgers had the ball to start the second half, but on fourth down the punter bobbled the snap. Breeze recovered and went 31 yards for the score, his third TD of the season.
"One of my teammates came through the gap and made a great play on the ball and blocked it (actually, the punter dropped the ball), and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, the ball's sitting right there," Breeze said. "And I pick it up and I'm running in the end zone."
Wisconsin retook the lead after a 65-yard drive highlighed by Taylor's 34-yard catch-and-run from Coan on fourth down. Mason Stokke scored on a fourth-down, 2-yard TD run to make the score 24-21 for Wisconsin.
Larsh's 27-yard field goal put Wisconsin ahead 27-21 early in the fourth quarter. And, Oregon continued to struggle offensively until Breeze's forced fumble gave the Ducks the ball and Herbert ran to glory.
Camden Lewis' fourth point-after kick provided the go-ahead point.
Then it was up to the defense, and the unit that held seven opponents to 10 points or less and continually made big plays in victories wouldn't be denied in preventing the Badgers from retaking the lead.
The offenses won't win any awards for their overall performances. Oregon had only 204 total yards, and the Badgers held the Ducks to 66 yards rushing on 30 carries (C.J. Verdell had 49 yards on 17 carries). Herbert, who'll likely be a first-round NFL draft based largely on his rocket arm, helped win the game with his feet, but he went 14 of 20 for 138 yards and the one interception. The Ducks went 3 of 10 on third downs.
"Wisconsin is a great defense, we knew they'd be a stout defense," Verdell said. "Toward the end we loosened them up.
"We knew (Herbert) could do that (running) the whole season. Whether it's running the ball or throwing the ball, he's going to do what he can."
Taylor had 32 career 100-yard games — but couldn't eclipse 100 yards against the Ducks. Coan went 23 of 35 for 186 yards. The Badgers went 5 of 17 on third downs — they ranked eighth nationally at 50% entering the game — but going 4 of 5 on fourth downs helped their cause.
"Our main focus was stopping the run," linebacker Isaac Slade-Matautia said, "and force them to pass. We got it done. We're all happy we're Rose Bowl champions."
"We had to put (Taylor) in a box," defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux said. "We expected everything they did."
Said coordinator Andy Avalos: "Guys did a great job sticking to the plan. And, when we needed a big stop we got it, and forced a turnover."
Avalos called Breeze "Johnny on the spot ... he plays hard and works hard and always is in the right spot at the right time. He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played."
Penei Sewell, Oregon's superstar left tackle, complimented the defense.
"They all want to be great and they're hungry," he said.
And, so it goes down in history: Oregon, Rose Bowl champions.
"Man, this is the icing on the cake," Dye said. "Super happy for the boys and everybody associated with this program. This means the world to me. We've been through a lot."
OREGON 7 7 7 7 — 28
WISCONSIN 10 7 7 3 — 27
OREGON — Justin Herbert 4 run (Camden Lewis kick), 9:53
WISCONSIN — Aron Cruickshank 95 kickoff return (Collin Larsh kick), 9:41
WISCONSIN — Larsh 44 FG, 8:05
OREGON — Herbert 5 run (Lewis kick), 3:16
WISCONSIN — Quintez Cephus 11 pass from Jack Coan (Larsh kick), 0:11
OREGON — Brady Breeze 31 fumble return (Lewis kick), 11:57
WISCONSIN — Mason Stokke 2 run (Larsh kick), 4:53
WISCONSIN — Larsh 27 FG, 12:09
OREGON — Herbert 30 run (Lewis kick), 7:41
A — 90,462
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