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Oregon's wire-to-wire victory over Utah secures Rose Bowl berth

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — For the first time since Justin Herbert was a junior in high school, the Oregon Ducks are going to the Rose Bowl.

No. 13 Oregon (11-2, 8-1 Pac-12) jumped ahead of No. 5 Utah (11-2, 7-2 Pac-12) early and never surrendered the lead in a wire-to-wire victory on Friday at Levi’s Stadium to earn the conference crown for the first time in five years.

“Couldn’t be more proud,” head coach Mario Cristobal said. “These guys are made of the right stuff. They have created a culture that is second to none. And a night like tonight validates the hard work.”

Running back CJ Verdell was voted MVP of the game after running for 208 yards and three touchdowns against the nation’s No. 1 run defense. The Ducks’ veteran offensive line cleared holes for Verdell all night, including on the 70-yard dagger with just over seven minutes remaining.

“We don’t try to focus on the outside noise too much, but hearing that they were the No. 1 team in the Pac-12 made us want to come out here and work even harder,” Verdell said.

Oregon’s unrelenting dominance on the ground came in direct contrast to the pregame narratives surrounding the point of attack. Utah was averaging just 56.3 rushing yards against per game on the season, and the Ducks gashed that very same defense for 239 yards and three scores on the ground.

Verdell’s MVP performance marked the second-highest rushing total in Pac-12 Championship Game history, behind only Oregon’s LaMichael James in 2011 and one yard ahead of Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey in 2015. 

“LaMichael James, he was a legend over here at Oregon,” Verdell said. “So to be with the likes of him is just a blessing.”

Defensively, Oregon stifled one of the most potent quarterback-running back combos in America in Tyler Huntley and Zack Moss. Huntley threw two interceptions and was sacked six times, while Moss couldn’t get much going until it was too late. At the forefront of that defensive performance were two players in particular: junior safety Brady Breeze and freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux.

Breeze picked off Huntley in the end zone in the first quarter, and made a team-high nine tackles in a career night. His play set the tone early, and the defense as a whole stuffed three 4th-and-short plays by the Utes.

Thibodeaux was a nightmare for the Utah offensive line for the full 60 minutes, racking up five tackles and two and a half sacks. With his season total sitting at nine with another opportunity looming, his preseason goal of 10 sacks appears to be very much in reach as a true freshman.

“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better,” Thibodeaux said. “I’m going to continue to get better...It’s only up from here.”

The Ducks now have just one game left in the 2019 season: a date with a Big Ten foe in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. The preparation for that game starts immediately, but Cristobal realizes the history and prestige surrounding that game.

“It is a tremendous honor,” he said. “I’ve never been to the Rose Bowl. I’ve watched it — the pageantry and everything that goes with it. It is as big of a stage as there is in college football.”

 

And for the players, they still have some celebrating to do.

“We put in the work,” Thibodeaux said. “Why not bask in the success?”