By Stewart Mandel
January 02, 2012

PASADENA, Calif. -- In the highest-scoring game in Rose Bowl history, in a whiplash-inducing thriller in which momentum seemed to shift by the minute and touchdown drives sometimes lasted a few seconds, we needed someone to tell us the game had actually ended.

Had a replay review not confirmed the ruling on the field, had Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson found a way to spike a play dead in less than two seconds, and had he managed to pull off one last 25-yard miracle, it's entirely possible sixth-ranked Oregon and ninth-ranked Wisconsin would have kept trading touchdowns well past sundown in the Arroyo Seco.

"If we had one more second, there's no doubt in my mind we would have scored," said Badgers center Peter Konz.

Referee Brad Allen did not give Wisconsin that chance, saying the clock ran out before Wilson could take a snap and throw a football to the ground. Oregon survived, 45-38, sending its players into a mad dash around the field to celebrate a victory three years in the making.

Check that -- 95 years in the making.

"We, the University of Oregon -- Rose Bowl champs!" longtime defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti howled after the Ducks claimed their school's first victory in the Granddaddy since 1917. "Not Rose Bowl participants."

It was a shootout that won't soon be forgotten, with two great offenses executing with midseason crispness. It was everything we've come to love watching about Chip Kelly's Oregon teams: Four scoring drives of fewer than two minutes; freshman De'Anthony Thomas ripping off 91- and 64-yard touchdown runs (the longest in Rose Bowl history); Kenjon Barner breaking a short pass 54 yards for his own score; LaMichael James putting up his usual 159 yards.

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And it was everything that made the 2011 Badgers' offense so unstoppable, with Wilson (19-of-25, 296 yards, three total touchdowns) and running back Montee Ball (32 carries, 164 yards) playing off each other like a football version of Stockton and Malone. While Wisconsin chipped away at the Ducks with Ball's straight-ahead runs and mostly short play-action strikes from Wilson, the Ducks moved so quickly it seemed at times like their offense was barely on the field.

The lead changed hands five times, and the score was tied on four other occasions.

"Two teams battled," said Kelly. "It came down to two seconds on the clock, and it could have gone either way."

Ultimately, Oregon did what it hadn't in BCS losses the past two seasons (to Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl and Auburn in last year's championship game): Carry over its regular-season panache to January. There would be no slow start this time, no sluggish offense. Wisconsin didn't have the dominant defensive front those other foes (or season-opening opponent LSU) did, and the Ducks exploited it.

"There was a way about our guys during this little [pre-bowl] minicamp," said offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. "An air of confidence and unfinished business."

Conversely, Wisconsin suffered an all-to-familiar fate: The near miss. Going back to last year's Rose Bowl against TCU, in which a failed two-point conversion marked the difference in a 21-19 defeat, Bret Bielema's team has lost four games that went down to the final seconds. Michigan State had its Hail Mary, Ohio State its game-winning bomb, but on Monday, Wisconsin's own attempt at a last-ditch miracle -- moving from its own 13 to the Ducks' 25 starting with just 16 seconds on the clock -- ended one play too soon for its liking.

"History's been written," said Badgers receiver Nick Toon. "We've just got to deal with it."

The first half was frenetic, ending with 636 combined yards and a 28-28 score. This inevitably drew comparisons by some to Baylor's 67-56 win over Washington in last Thursday's Alamo Bowl, a game that many felt made a mockery of defensive football.

The differences here, though, were these were two 11-2 teams, rather than 9-3 vs. 7-5, and these were two defenses that, while hardly LSU/Alabama caliber, were far from horrific during the season. Ultimately, they would step up and help decide the final outcome.

In the final minutes of the third quarter, with Wisconsin leading 38-35, the Badgers forced Oregon into a third and 18. Darron Thomas threw downfield to De'Anthony Thomas, but the ball sailed too high, off the receiver's hand and into those of Badgers safety Aaron Henry. It could have been a back-breaker.

But on Wisconsin's very next series, linebacker Kiko Alonzo accomplished what only three players had before him this season: He intercepted Russell Wilson. Brushing off his previous mistake, Darron Thomas (with ample help from James) drove Oregon back down the field and threw a go-ahead 11-yard touchdown to Lavasier Tuinei.

"We're a resilient team," said Barner. "A turnover here or there isn't going to keep us down."

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From there, the Ducks stopped Wisconsin three and out and added another field goal to make it 45-38 with 6:50 left and. Finally, in the game's most important play, with just over four minutes remaining, Wilson completed a 29-yard pass to Jared Abbrederis down the left sideline, but cornerback Terrance Mitchell forced a fumble on the tackle. The ball sat there tantalizingly untouched for a second, just inside the white chalk, where linebacker Michael Clay recovered it, stopping Wisconsin's drive at the Oregon 27. The Ducks then bled most of the remaining clock before Wilson's last-ditch drive and unrewarded spike.

"We didn't play our best game," Aliotti said of his defense, "but we got enough stops to get out with a W."

The offensive-dominated contest ensures that Oregon won't yet quiet all of its skeptics. Like every other team in the national spotlight, that will require dethroning some SEC power with a more formidable defense than Wisconsin's (which, it should be noted, did rank a deceiving eighth nationally in yards allowed).

But Kelly finally earned a signature nonconference win, in the sport's most fabled bowl game no less, capping off his second straight 12-win season. How many other coaches would kill to be in his shoes?

"We're 34-6 in the last three years because we take every game like it's the Super Bowl," he said. "Some people don't believe that ... but that's what works for us, and we're going to stick with that."

And the Ducks aren't going anywhere, either. James said again after the game that he hasn't decided whether to leave for the NFL. If he does, that will just open more opportunities for Barner and the absurdly fast De'Anthony Thomas -- who averaged a mere 77.5 yards on two carries Monday. Darron Thomas returns as well, as do seven starters and a whole bunch of other contributors (including Alonzo) on defense.

"This team is great," said De'Anthony Thomas, "but we're going to even more awesome next year."

That team's still eight months away from playing a football game. In the meantime, this team year's team can celebrate its historic postseason achievement -- and relive the unforgettable contest in which it took place.

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