Big plays in big moments pretty much shapes up Oregon’s narrow 28-27 victory over Wisconsin in Wednesday’s 106th meeting of the Rose Bowl.
It doesn’t get much bigger than the spotlight of the “Granddaddy of Them All.”
Enjoying it all at the finish was Duck safety Brady Breeze, who picked up a loose ball fumbled by Wisconsin punter Anthony Lotti and, well, breezed in from there, going 31 yards for a key touchdown, pulling the Ducks ahead 21-17 with 11:57 left in the third quarter.
“One of my teammates came through the gap and made a great play on the ball and blocked it, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, the ball’s just sitting right there,” explained Breeze in the aftermath of the win. “And I pick it up and I’m running in the end zone.”
Like his performance in the Pac-12 Championship win over Utah, he had 20 tackles against Wisconsin. Along with his touchdown return after picking the loose ball, Breeze caused a fumble and seemed to be everywhere on defense.
He’s come a long way since his sophomore season when he made only 10 tackles and considered switching to offense. His coach is thankful he hung in there.
Breeze was part of the Oregon program during the lowest of lows, recalling when the Ducks were 4-8 his freshman year. “Life has come full circle,” he said , “and I’ve stayed faithful as a team. We’ve been down and out. We’ve had three defensive coordinators in four years. And I wouldn’t trade the situation for the world because it has made us better men and better teammates. And we’ve got this guy as our head coach.”
As he said it, Breeze was looking at Mario Cristobal, touting the Ducks’ coach who joined him and Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert for post-game comments in the Rose Bowl media center. Cristobal has marked a new beginning following the downturn of former coaches Mark Helfrich and Willie Taggart, the latter at Oregon for just one year before heading off to Florida State.
Cristobal was let go by Florida International and was an assistant on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama before taking over the Duck’s program in 2018. Breeze, heralded for his play against Wisconsin and named the defensive player of the game, is glad he’s around.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” said the good-natured Breeze, a redshirt junior from Lake Oswego. “It’s been a blessing and our team has stayed faithful. And to be able to make plays in the Rose Bowl like that is incredible. We’ve worked so hard as a defense and as an offense and special teams. It’s nice to come together as teammates.”
Playing for the Ducks isn’t for everybody, Cristobal telling the assembled media “we’re not warm and cuddly,” but seems the perfect fit for Breeze.
“This guy has always been impressive,” said the coach. “That’s a tribute and a testament to his character as well, when you’re a really good football player and coaches are trying to figure it out, and sometimes it works out exactly right and sometimes it doesn’t, it’s difficult because you have a lot of guys competing for playing time. And he just – he never stopped bringing it. And he proved a lot. He proved that he needs to be out there. He’s proved he’s one of the better players on or football team. And we’re fortunate and lucky to have him part of this organization.”
Herbert, the Ducks quarterback, rushed for three touchdown, including a 30-yard run with 7:41 remaining in the contest, putting his team up for good by one point where it ended.
The Ducks came up with more heroics down the stretch, picking up some key first downs and forcing Wisconsin to use all of its time outs to run out the clock while preserving a 12-2 season.
He was the starting quarterback on that 4-8 team and now has directed the Oregon offense to a Rose Bowl victory. Asked about his emotions, Herbert said, “Amazed. That’s something all of us have talked about these past couple of weeks. And to realize where we were and where we are now, it’s been a great journey. And for us to stick together through those tough times is just a testament to all the guys on the team and all the hard work that we’ve put in.”
Breeze and Herbert were respectively named the defensive and offensive players of the game.
Following the game, Herbert ran over to the sideline, where he gave his mom and dad a hug, knowing he had played his last game in an Oregon uniform. “I wish it wasn’t over,” he said, now looking ahead to the NFL draft where he’s a projected first round pick. “It’s been the best four years of my life.”
Cristobal chimed in, joking: “We can ask for a sixth year….” The media center filled with laughter.
“I’ve been honored to be a part of this team and to represent Eugene and the university,” the quarterback continued. “It’s humbling and it has been such a great experience. And for them to be there and supportive throughout these years, it has meant a lot to me. I’m excited. And the direction of the program, I couldn’t be more happy about it. They’re in good hands. They’ve got the right coaches, they’ve got the right guys coming up. And they’ll have a really good defense next year and some really explosive offensive players. And I’m excited to watch them, for sure.”
Plenty of the credit for changing the culture of Oregon’s football team goes to Cristobal, but he knows it takes more than one to make that happen. “I think the best way to talk about it and describe it is ‘I’m a member of this family,’” said the coach. “And everybody here, everybody back in that locker room, everyone that was here the previous couple – they were involved in changing it. This is in no way, shape or form a one-man operation. Never has been. Never will be. We do things as a family. We stick together, and we got it.”
And, he stressed, the team will continued to work hard.
“We all stuck to a blueprint that is as demanding as it gets and that will push right to the edge until you get a breakthrough,” insisted Cristobal. “That’s what these guys had. And because of that, I’ve learned as much from them, hopefully as much as they’ve learned along this process, all of us have. That’s the way I look at it because I think that’s the reality when you are part of a program, and certainly I consider myself just a part of this program.”