Just because the Rose Bowl is beautiful doesn't mean every win in the historic venue has to pretty. No. 6 Oregon beat No. 8 Wisconsin 28-27 on Wednesday evening in an ugly contest beneath a breathtaking sky. It was a game filled with plenty of tension but more mistakes than brilliant plays.
Oregon began the game with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ended with a 4-yard Justin Herbert touchdown run. Oregon managed only 128 more yards on offense the rest of the game, though it reached the end zone three more times. All three of those touchdowns were either the direct result of Wisconsin turnovers or came after after the miscues.
Herbert finished the game with only 138 yards passing, but he did enough with his legs to get the win. He scored three rushing touchdowns, including a 30-yard scamper on a read-option play late in the fourth quarter following the Badgers fourth turnover of the night. The Ducks defense then forced a three-and-out, and the Oregon offense bled the rest of the clock to hold on for the win.
The victory improves Oregon's record to 12-2, its first 12-win season since it won 13 games in 2014 and reached the College Football Playoff National Championship. Wisconsin finishes 10-4 with two straight losses to end the season.
Here are the five biggest takeaways from this game -- one for each time I longingly stared at a shot of the sun setting in Pasadena during the game.
1. I have no idea what Justin Herbert will be in the NFL, but you had to admire his performance: In the Fiesta Bowl over the weekend, Trevor Lawrence found himself in an unfamiliar situation. His top two receivers were banged up throughout the course of the game, and Ohio State's secondary was doing a great job of staying with them. Up front, the Buckeyes defense was keying on Travis Etienne in the run game, forcing Lawrence to carry the load with his legs. He did just that in carrying the Tigers to the title game.
Herbert was in a similar situation in Pasadena on Wednesday. Wisconsin's run defense took C.J. Verdell and the rest of Oregon's running backs out of the game. Herbert couldn't find much through the air, either. But when Oregon needed Herbert to make a play with his legs, he did so. He scored on Oregon's first drive of the game, and then did so again late in the first half following a Wisconsin interception. The Ducks basically ran the same read-option play Herbert scored on to open the game. When the Badgers defense crashed on Verdell, he kept the ball, raced to the corner, delivered an impressive stiff-arm and scored. Then the Ducks ran the play one more time when they needed to in the fourth quarter. Herbert, following another Wisconsin turnover, again kept the ball, broke to his right and followed two blockers to the end zone for a 30-yard score.
Herbert's three touchdown rushes make him the first QB to rush for three scores in a Rose Bowl since Texas' Vince Young did so in 2006. Do you think Justin Herbert ever thought he'd be mentioned in the same sentence as Vince Young?
What does any of this do for his draft stock? I have no idea. Herbert is like a human Rorschach test -- you see what you want to see with him. You see the size and the athletic ability, but then you see the results, and they're not always there. He was only 14 of 20 for 138 yards with no passing touchdowns and an interception. The interception was the result of a bad decision. His 6.9 yards per attempt tonight weren't impressive, but it also leads you to wonder if Herbert's lackluster numbers can sometimes be a byproduct of the offense he's running. If you like what you see, you'll convince yourself he can be a franchise QB. If you don't, he's going to be a bust. The truth is likely in the middle, but regardless of how his NFL career goes, this Rose Bowl was a terrific encore to his college career. In fact, it was a summarization of it in a way. It wasn't always pretty, but he got the job done more often than not.
2. Turnovers kill: Oregon had 204 yards of offense in this game and won. Oregon had 204 yards of offense and 28 of them came on the final snap that didn't lead to a kneel-down. So how does a team win the Rose Bowl while only picking up 204 yards of offense? Well, turnovers mostly. As I stated above, 75 of Oregon's yards came on its first possession. That means it managed 129 yards on its next 12 possessions. Of those final 12 drives, only two lasted longer than four plays and none covered more than 40 yards, yet Oregon scored touchdowns on two of them. One touchdown was a three-play, 33-yard drive following a Wisconsin interception. The other was a one-play, 30-yard drive (the game-winning Herbert touchdown) following a Wisconsin fumble. The third touchdown came when Wisconsin's punter Connor Allen flat dropped a snap, and Oregon's Brady Breeze was all too happy to scoop it up and take it 31 yards to the house.
So Wisconsin turned the ball over four times, and those four turnovers resulted in three of Oregon's four touchdowns.
3. Feels like Oregon will be a force to be reckoned with again: This wasn't a pretty game, but I don't think Oregon coach Mario Cristobal minds. The program Cristobal is building in Eugene isn't like the one Chip Kelly built before him. It's not about glitz and glamor as much as it's about being physical and beating up opponents. It's more of an old-school, SEC style in a conference that's typically been more about speed and offense. It's hard to argue with the results.
After going 9-4 in his debut season, the Ducks improved by three wins this season to get to 12-2 and win their first Rose Bowl since 2014. They did so with a young, talented roster that will only be infused with more talent if recruiting rankings are to be believed. Oregon's class is ranked No. 18 nationally and No. 2 in the Pac 12. It was No. 1 in the conference last year. With coaching turnover at Washington, Stanford seeming to be headed in the wrong direction and USC doing whatever the hell it is that USC is doing right now, it's suddenly looking like an Oregon program that won four Pac-12 titles in the decade that just ended is ready to win some more in the 2020s.
4. As Jonathan Taylor goes, so goes Wisconsin: It hasn't been a secret. Taylor finished the day with 94 yards and surpassed 2,000 yards for the second consecutive season, but it took him 21 carries to get those 94 yards. That's an average of 4.5 yards per carry. It's the fifth time Taylor has been held below 5 yards per carry in a game this season. Wisconsin went 3-2 in those games. In his career, Wisconsin was 5-5 in games Taylor averaged fewer than 5 yards per carry. Conversely, the Badgers were 26-4 when he averaged 5 yards or more.
5. The Rose Bowl is a sore subject for Wisconsin and the Big Ten: With this Wisconsin loss, the Big Ten falls to 4-12 in the Rose Bowl since 2000, and for Wisconsin alone it's four straight losses. Current Big 12 teams have more Rose Bowl wins since this century than the Big Ten does (Oklahoma in 2003, Texas in 2005 and 2006, and TCU in 2011).