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Ducks find strategy to claim Rose Bowl crown, lay blueprint for program's future

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon safety Brady Breeze (left) and quarterback Justin Herbert admire one of the spoils after the Ducks' Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin.Oh, the hope and naivete of youth, as best exemplified by freshman Oregon receiver Mycah Pittman after he and his veteran teammates beat Wisconsin 28-27 in the Rose Bowl.

"I feel it's just a stepping stone to a national championship, to be honest. Just a stop," he said. "We're on to bigger and better things now. We're bringing in more and more talent, and this team is so confident in one another."

Whoa, hold on, youngster. The Ducks managed only 204 yards offense against Wisconsin in the program's third curiously ineffective postseason offensive performance in a row, and if not for four turnovers, the Badgers would have won the game.

The Ducks' defense, tough all season under first-year coordinator Andy Avalos, rose to the occasion.

The Ducks capitalized on three turnovers with three touchdowns — a 31-yard Brady Breeze scoop-and-score off a fumbled Wisconsin punt and TDs by Justin Herbert on short-field drives of 33 and 30 yards.

The latter clinched the game, Herbert scooting 30 yards for the touchdown and, with Camden Lewis' extra-point kick the Ducks led 28-27.

Oregon, after stopping Wisconsin twice, got the ball back and the Ducks picked up one first down (Pittman, 12-yard reception) and another (Juwan Johnson, 28-yard reception).

So, do the math. Except for the opening, 75-yard touchdown drive for the first of three Herbert TD runs, and 40 yards of clinching Herbert passes, the Ducks managed only 89 yards — and 30 came on a touchdown run. The Ducks had nonscoring drives of zero, four, minus 3, two, nine, minus 5, seven, 25 and four yards.

Wisconsin was good, defensively, but, wow, it was another offensive clunker of sorts in a bowl game with coach Mario Cristobal, coordinator Marcus Arroyo and Herbert at the controls, following the 2017 Vegas Bowl (not crossing midfield until midway through the third quarter in a 38-28 loss to Boise State) and 2018 Redbox Bowl (one scoring drive, 11 punts in a 7-6 win over Michigan State).

Then again, it was another win. Going back 17 games, Cristobal and his team have won 15 and lost another on a TD pass with nine seconds left (Auburn).

Clearly, the program is on the upswing, it's a team game, and the Ducks (12-2) celebrated because they won, hardly lamenting their poor offense. (It was the lowest Rose Bowl yardage output since USC's 157 in 1979).

"Everyone of them is a dog," star offensive lineman Penei Sewell said, of the Oregon defense. "They all want to be great and they're hungry. It showed."

Seniors went out with a win after building from a 4-8 season in 2016 — namely Herbert, offensive linemen Jake Hanson, Calvin Throckmorton, Shane Lemieux and Brady Aiello and linebacker Troy Dye.

The Ducks looked like world-beaters in whipping USC 56-24 and Utah 37-15, while slugging out tight wins against Stanford (21-6), Cal (17-7), Washington (35-31), Washington State (37-35, thanks to a Herbert-led drive that set up Lewis' winning field goal) and Jake Luton-less Oregon State (24-10).

In the big picture, the Ducks learned how to win games under Cristobal, following a disappointing home loss to Stanford and rough road losses to Washington State and Arizona in 2018. The Ducks celebrated heartily after the Redbox Bowl because they found a way to mount a drive and win the game, period.

Finding a way to win a game when you don't play your best is the sign of a good program, and the Ducks once again are a national-level program. Sure, Herbert, offensive linemen and Dye are done, but the Ducks are not done, with backup QB Tyler Shough, some skill players and Sewell back on offense and with Avalos' stacked defense returning prominent members in 2020.

And, what if Cristobal makes another home-run hire, a la Avalos, on the offensive side with Arroyo taking his talents to be the head man at UNLV? A new offensive coordinator could be a game-changer for the program.

What Avalos and his talented defense gave Oregon in 2019 was margin for error, much like the potent UO offenses helped the defense in the Mike Bellotti/Chip Kelly/Mark Helfrich years, and it stiffened enough (and created turnovers) to bail out the poorly performing offense in the Rose Bowl.

Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, by far the most prolific three-year back in NCAA history with an enormous 6,171 yards, picked up only 94 yards on 21 carries, with a long run of 18 yards. Badgers QB Jack Coan had a long pass of 34 yards on a wheel-route chuck to Taylor on fourth down.

The Badgers had 322 yards offense, controlled the clock (38:03 time of possession to UO's 21:57), had more third-down conversions and went 4 of 5 on fourth down. But, because of the UO defense, they lost.

Avalos felt that, when the Badgers dominated the third quarter, it was deja vu.

"In the third quarter, we were going down the valley again like in the Auburn game when we got worn out," Avalos said. "All the coaches saw it and recognized it. We pulled them back in and finished the game, and it was unbelievable."

The Ducks finished the season giving up 16.6 points and 320.6 yards, and it showed to be the best defense in the Pac-12 (yes, better than Utah).

No star shined more brightly than the safety Breeze, who prepped at Central Catholic. He had a team-high 11 tackles, had the fumble recovery and touchdown on special teams and then forced the fumble that led to Herbert's 30-yard TD run.

My goodness, what a surge of exceptional play by Breeze, who also starred in the Pac-12 title game and earned first-team Pac-12 honors for special teams. He climbed through a competitive depth chart.

"I wouldn't trade it for the world," said Breeze, of his rise to a star and part of a team that rebuilt for a Rose Bowl run. "It's been a blessing, and our team has just stayed faithful. And, to be able to make plays in the Rose Bowl like that is just incredible."

Avalos called Breeze "Johnny on the spot" for his knack of being around the ball and making plays.

Added Cristobal: "This guy's always been impressive. He never stopped competing. ... He's proved he's one of the better players on our football team. We're fortunate and lucky to have him as part of this organization."

Offensively, how weird was it that the quarterback who will be a first-round NFL draft pick in April by virtue of his rocket arm produced the three offensive touchdowns with his legs? Herbert also loosened up Utah with runs.

One can't blame Oregon for not running Herbert more during the season; an injury suffered on a TD run against Cal in 2017 derailed his sophomore season. And, the Ducks could get offense done with the run game and with its steady receiver corps throughout the season.

But, the Ducks were not only minus injured tight end Jacob Breeland (Herbert's favorite target) for the second half of the season, another favorite target, Jaylon Redd, missed the Rose Bowl for personal reasons.

The Ducks looked pedestrian offensively in the Rose Bowl, and they've been maddeningly inconsistent. Verdell had only 49 yards on 17 carries; the Ducks had 66 yards total on 30 carries (2.2 yards per carry). Herbert, who went 14 of 20 for 138 yards, averaged only 9.9 yards per completion and 6.9 per attempt, well below his season averages. Was it poor game-planning? Was it play-calling? Was it Herbert? Was it Wisconsin's defense?

It doesn't matter now, unless NFL scouts saw something in his struggles to hold against him. Herbert was happy to win.

"I just hope that we put up more points than the opponent," Herbert said.

Said Cristobal: "I tell him it's legendary. It's hard to even script this kind of Hollywood story, right? Right down the road, born and raised (in Eugene), just like Brady (from Oregon), been watching Oregon Ducks football forever. And, they're sitting in front of you as Rose Bowl champions."

Herbert finished 29-13 as a starter, certainly not better than the likes of Joey Harrington, Darron Thomas and Marcus Mariota, but like Duck QBs of yesteryear he won a big-time bowl game. He's one of the better UO quarterbacks of all time, and he could join Akili Smith, Harrington and Mariota as top-5 NFL draft picks. He finished with 10,541 career yards and 95 touchdown passes (and 13 rush TDs).

Herbert and his 2019 team will always be Rose Bowl champs.

"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."

Said Sewell, who won the Outland Trophy among several other awards:

"All the awards and individual awards don't mean nothing. This is the Rose Bowl, and to win it with my brothers, everybody on this team, it's what matters to me the most. I'm going to cherish this moment."

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