EL PASO, Texas — Jonathan Stewart set a Sun Bowl record with a career-high 253 yards rushing and Justin Roper, a 2006 Buford High grad, threw four touchdown passes in his first start as Oregon beat South Florida 56-21 on Monday.
The Ducks (9-4) scored 28 straight points in the third quarter to snap a four-game postseason losing streak, their first bowl win since beating Colorado 38-16 in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2001 season.
Oregon made it look easy against the Bulls (9-4), who boasted one of the nation’s better defenses. Credit the steady play by Roper, a redshirt freshman, and Stewart, as smooth a runner as you’ll find.
The Ducks won for the first time since losing quarterback Dennis Dixon to a knee injury in November, snapping a three-game losing streak the killed their national title hopes. How easy was it for the Ducks? They won a matchup of teams that’d been ranked No. 2 in the nation earlier this season handily, despite setting a Sun Bowl record with 138 penalty yards.
Roper started the scoring avalanche with a 14-yard TD strike to Jaison Williams and added a 15-yard scoring pass to Ed Dickson.
On the next play from scrimmage, Walter Thurmond stepped in front of a pass by South Florida’s Matt Grothe and returned it 25 yards for another TD, giving the Ducks a 39-14 lead midway through the third.
But these hard-hitting Quackers weren’t finished. Grothe had another interception on the ensuing possession, the first of two for Oregon’s Jairus Byrd, setting up Roper’s 8-yard TD pass to Stewart.
On that drive, Stewart got free on a 16-yard gain, breaking the previous Sun Bowl record of 197 yards rushing set in 1977 by LSU’s Charles Alexander in a 24-14 loss to Stanford.
Just like that, Oregon’s 18-14 halftime lead had swelled to 46-14.
For good measure, Matt Evensen added a 30-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter and defensive end Michael DiVincenzo returned an interception for a touchdown with 3:23 remaining.
Roper opened the season fifth on the depth chart and ran the scout team until a series of quarterback injuries — none more devastating than the loss of Dixon, a Heisman Trophy hopeful — reshaped the Oregon roster.
Coach Mike Bellotti gave Roper the start over Cody Kempt, another redshirt freshman. Roper responded by tying a Sun Bowl record with four TD passes and finished 17-of-30 for 180 yards passing with no interceptions.
Stewart was just as impressive. He broke a 71-yard TD run late in the second quarter, greeted by an enormous hole off left tackle as he raced untouched to the end zone to give the Ducks an 18-11 lead.
Stewart kept the momentum going after the break. His 41-yard run on Oregon’s first drive of the second half set up Roper’s second TD pass for a 25-14 lead, and he logged the ninth-best rushing effort in a bowl game.
There was no sign of the turf toe injury that slowed Stewart earlier this season, when Oregon dropped from the national title chase.
South Florida, which reached No. 2 in the country in just its 11th season playing football, missed a chance to win 10 games for the first time.
Grothe left late in the third after being tackled while scrambling.
The 49,867 fans were treated to lots of penalty flags. The teams combined to break the Sun Bowl record for total penalty yardage — 202 penalty yards — and it wasn’t even halftime when the old mark fell.