Entering the 2012 Rose Bowl against the dangerous Wisconsin Badgers, the Oregon Ducks were trying to get a couple of monkeys off their back. They hadn’t won this particular bowl in since 1917, and, more importantly, they hadn’t won a monumental game against a marquee opponent in recent memory.
There was the Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State in 2010. Then there was the National Championship loss last year, the close defeat to LSU to begin this season, and the loss to USC that dashed their hopes of returning to the title game. The Ducks have been rightfully renowned over the past few years as a dangerous team. Yet, not as a team that has prevailed under the bright lights. This year, in this game, on January 2nd, they could shred that label, finally prove their true worth, and get one of the biggest victories in school history.
Darron Thomas, Lavasier Tuinei, De’Anthony Thomas, LaMichael James, and Kiko Alonso, among others, made that happen. And for the first time in a long time, roses would be clenched between the teeth of the Ducks, a collective group of talented players oh-so deserving of this moment.
The former Thomas has regressed this season, but delivered when his team needed him most. He made some ill-advised decisions, some of which paying off, but was all in all a smart decision-maker in leading Oregon down the field against the Badgers. It helped that he had Tuinei, Thomas, and James by his side.
De’Anthony, the electrifying true freshman running back returning to southern California, sparked Oregon on two occasions–first, when the going was tough and when a win was in sight. They were on opposite ends of the spectrum–one tying the game at 14 and the other taking a late lead. The bursts were extraordinary, but nothing his teammates, coaches, and fans haven’t seen before. He was a blur, even when he slowed down. A 91-yard touchdown run and another for 64 yards. And after the game, according to The Register-Guard‘s Rob Moseley, he said his goal this offseason is to improve his speed. For someone who blew past Wisconsin for a Rose Bowl-record 314 all-purpose yards, that’s a scary thought.
He doesn’t need much improvement, but entering the Rose Bowl Darron, Tuinei, and Alonso sure did. They have all been underwhelming this season; Tuinei simply hasn’t produced, Darron has been inaccurate, and Alonso has been just average, with plenty of off-the-field problems haunting him. They needed to deliver. And all three joined De’Anthony in stepping up to help produce one of the school’s more meaningful victories. Tuinei had eight catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Darron threw for 268 yards and three touchdowns. And Alonso had five tackles, two sacks, and an interception. He was the defensive MVP. Tuinei was the offensive MVP.
The Ducks benefited greatly from Alonso’s diving interception, a play that was considered by many teammates to be the game’s most pivotal. There was also the fumble recovery near the sideline that had head coach Chip Kelly jumping for joy, and then miscue by Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson on the game’s final play; a spike that left zeroes on the clock and Oregon jubilantly rushing onto the field. Oregon, behind a little luck and a lot of talent, confidence, and composure, won on the big stage for the first time in a long time.
In winning, the Ducks became more than an electrifying team with flashy uniforms and helmets. They had the newest combination: incredibly shiny helmets and eerily cool uniforms that glowed in the night. This time, the wide array of talent backed up Nike’s creativity and delivered on the field.
Entering the game, it was hard not to give the Badgers the edge. The Ducks were going up against a record-setting running back in Montee Ball, a quarterback in Wilson who threw only three interceptions all season, and an offensive line that averages well over 300 pounds per player. It was a tall task, but they rose to the challenge and are, as a result, smelling roses. The offense played smart, made the right reads, and kept their miscues to a minimum. The defense tightened in the second half, took advantage of mistakes, and shut down Ball. And the offense simply outplayed Wisconsin’s when it needed to.
This Rose Bowl victory will do for now, but it isn’t what the set out to do at the start of the season. One big win down, another to go. And they may yet get an opportunity to accomplish that ultimate goal. It sounds like James, who had 159 yards in the 45-38 triumph, might return for his senior season–to be a part of this immensely talented and cohesive group, to chase the only item left on the list, a championship.
“I feel like we’re going to be more awesome next year,” De’Anthony said. Coming off this incredibly satisfying victory, they can be.