PASADENA, Calif. — As Kiko Alonso was summoned to the front of a platform at midfield of the Rose Bowl on Monday night, surrounded by confetti, his teammates and cheering fans, he was handed the defensive player of the game trophy by Oregon coach Chip Kelly.
In a far corner of the stadium, Carlos and Monica Alonso knew just what the moment meant to their middle son — and to themselves.
Tears streamed down their cheeks.
“It’s an amazing moment for us,” Monica said.
The Ducks’ 45-38 victory over Wisconsin, which ended when referee Brad Allen announced that the clock indeed had run out on the Badgers, was not a testament to defense.
But it did serve as confirmation of the qualities that seem to define the Ducks — their flair for the spectacular, their love of the provocative and their embrace of the hard way.
Few embody those qualities better than Alonso, the talented but troubled linebacker who twice has been suspended for alcohol-related offenses, recovered from torn knee ligaments and emerged Monday as one of the few difference-makers to line up on defense.
Alonso, who hauled down Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson on a fourth-down scramble in the second quarter, swung the momentum — and soon the lead — back to Oregon (12-2) late in the third quarter when he picked off Wilson, only the quarterback’s fourth interception of the season.
When Kelly embraced Alonso on the podium, whispering how proud he was of him, it was an acknowledgment of what might not have been.
“It was special about how far Kiko has come,” Kelly said.
That sentiment was thrown around like a football by the Ducks, who not only won their first Rose Bowl since 1917, but beat their first marquee nonconference opponent since Kelly took over as coach three years ago. They’d lost season-openers to Boise State and, this season, LSU, and had finished the past two seasons with losses to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and Auburn in the national championship game.
So despite their flashy, fast-paced offense and their even flashier uniforms — Nike-designed liquid metallic helmets that were more like mirrors on a bright sunny afternoon — questions persisted about whether the Ducks ever could beat an elite team.
“We always come up short or shoot ourselves in the foot,” cornerback Troy Hill said.
They appeared ready to do so again, needing a fumble by Wisconsin receiver Jared Abbrederis at the Oregon 27 with 4:06 to play, and the clock running out after Wilson completed two long passes in 14 seconds to reach the Oregon 25 when time ran out before he could spike the ball.
“It sums up our season,” defensive end Louis Nzegwu said of Wisconsin (11-3), whose two other losses — to Ohio State and Michigan State — came on Hail Mary passes. “It’s a game of inches.”
The dramatic ending was not out of character for the Ducks, either. Their week began with nine players being stuck in a Century City hotel elevator for two hours. It included guard Mark Asper rescuing a choking restaurant patron with the Heimlich maneuver. And the Ducks’ latest uniform ensemble led to as many fashion statements as ones about football.
As good as Oregon has been over the past three seasons, with a 34-6 record, the Ducks have had a penchant for making news that sometimes had serious consequences.
There was LeGarrette Blount’s infamous sucker punch. Numerous Ducks have run afoul of the law, none more notable than former quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who, after leading the Ducks to the Rose Bowl two years ago, was kicked off the team after being cited for possession of marijuana at a traffic stop. That came after Kelly had suspended him for the 2010 season after he pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his role in the theft of a pair of laptops from a fraternity house. Last month, Cliff Harris, a talented safety, was kicked off the team for a series of violations.
That type of outcome might have been the case for Alonso.
Two years ago, hours after Kelly called a news conference to announce a new get-tough policy amid a flurry of arrests, Alonso was busted for driving under the influence, giving the impression that the program had run amok and critics a new punch line.
Alonso was suspended for the 2010 season, but he would have missed it anyway when he tore knee ligaments. Then last May, Alonso was so drunk he knocked in the front door of an apartment that he thought was his. After the woman who lived there called 911 and fled, police arrived and found Alonso passed out on the bed.
He was placed on two years probation, sentenced to 200 hours of community service and required to undergo substance-abuse counseling. He also was suspended again.
“I told him, ‘I don’t know if I could save you again,’ ” defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said.
Alonso spent part of the spring volunteering at a center for troubled youths in Eugene, refereeing youth soccer games and weeding football fields. He has another 80 service hours that he plans to finish this spring. Alonso also spent time undergoing counseling for alcohol abuse. He is forbidden from having any alcohol in his possession.
“Do I think he has a problem [with alcohol]?” Monica Alonso said. “No. But I do think maybe he didn’t know when to say, ‘OK, I need to stop now.’
“And we always talk about that. He can’t drink now for a while. He turned 21, but he hasn’t been able to go out and do this or that. When he can go out and have his fun and have some drinks, he needs to know when to stop.”
When Alonso returned home to the San Jose suburb of Los Gatos, Calif. — he attended the same high school as Vikings defensive end Jared Allen and former Bills quarterback Trent Edwards — he did some soul searching, his parents said.
“He never slacked,” his father, Carlos, said. “It was like, boom, a wake-up call. But we were worried all summer. We didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Alonso, who was atop the depth chart at middle linebacker before his arrest, was reinstated after the season-opening loss to LSU, but he has not started all season.
Alonso had not spoken with reporters this season, saying later in the locker room that he did not want to have to recount his off-field troubles. When he did speak Monday, he acknowledged there was a time when he was in a dark place, but he was a man of few words, which his family said was keeping in character.
His mother called him terribly shy. His older brother, Carlos Jr., a second baseman in the Phillies organization, observed him being surrounded by reporters on the field and could not help but smile. A high-school-age younger brother, Lucas, was at the Rose Bowl, too, with Kiko’s No. 47 proudly painted on his bare chest.
“He probably said more to you guys in five minutes than he said in the five days he was home for Christmas,” Carlos Jr. said. “That’s just him.”
While his mother promised his family’s support, the most important conversation Alonso had may have been with Toby Corey, a longtime family friend with whom Alonso works out.
“It’s really goal-driven,” Corey said. “We talked this summer about having the opportunity to play on Sundays. But let’s focus on this year. Have a good season, get to a BCS Championship Game or a Rose Bowl — that’s in your sights, and then after that you step up. He has the body, he has the mind. You saw what he did today.”
At 6 feet 4 and 240 pounds, Alonso has the size and also the explosiveness that made him stand out against Wisconsin. He closed down on Wilson with stunning speed on his sack — he also was credited with another half-sack — and he undercut tight end Jacob Pedersen for the third-quarter interception on a quick hitch on third-and-3 from the Wisconsin 34.
On the ensuing drive, Darron Thomas threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Lavasier Tuinei, giving Oregon a 42-38 lead it would not relinquish.
In a game in which a Rose Bowl-record 83 points were scored and 1,129 yards were accumulated, it wasn’t like anyone had the right to expect moments of defensive brilliance.
But then who else would have counted on anything from Alonso this season?
“I probably shouldn’t make this comment, but he just needs to know what house he goes into,” Aliotti said with a smile.
“Anybody that can persevere and stay in this program, you can count on,” Aliotti continued.
“Because after a while, if you don’t do the right things and you don’t live your life the way an Oregon football player is supposed to live their life, then unfortunately, we love you but we have to get rid of you.”
That this did not happen with Alonso is something all parties clearly were pleased about late Monday. A young man who — for the time being, at least — has saved himself, helped save his teammates, too.