Everyone remembers the hype that began Oregon's 2001 football season. Coming off ten wins and a Holiday Bowl victory over Texas the season before, Oregon landed the covers on the college football preview editions of Sports Illustrated and ESPN: The Magazine. A multi-story billboard of "Joey Heisman" greeted visitors to Madison Square Garden in New York City. Oregon, a team that hadn't won a major bowl game in 83 years, was a darling pick to play for a national championship.
It was gone in a flash.
On October 20, fifth-ranked Oregon had a 14 point fourth quarter lead over unranked Stanford, a seemingly insurmountable deficit against a team that hadn't lost a home game in almost five years. But, a series of unfortunate and bizarre events happened that made it a game. Stanford blocked a punt, then another. They recovered an onside kick. Stanford scored what seemed to be the tying touchdown, but a blocked extra point gave Joey Harrington and the Ducks a chance to salt the game away with five minutes to go. But Harrington got hit, his throw was intercepted, and a few minutes later, Stanford was dancing in the end zone with the go ahead score. Captain Comeback had 1:10 left to rally the troops, but it wasn't meant to be. The Ducks' national championship hopes died on the Autzen Stadium turf that day.
Making matters worse, the very next game was the one that had actually worried Oregon fans. Most fans figured the Ducks would handle the unranked Cardinal at Autzen. A late October trip to Pullman to play Washington State was another matter. Although projected to finish last in the Pac-10 in the preseason, the Cougars stood at 7-0. They hadn't exactly played a juggernaut of a schedule, but had already beaten Stanford in Palo Alto and a team that came into the season very highly touted, Oregon State, on the Palouse. An offensive juggernaut, Wazzu topped the Pac-10 in points, yards, and passing yards. They also lead the league in rushing defense. And, as always, a late October trip to Martin Stadium promised unknown weather adventures-whether it be rain, wind, or snow-and the coldest temperatures anyone could expect to play in all year. A loss to Washington State would not only put Oregon two games behind the Cougars in the race for the Pac-10 crown, but with UCLA undefeated, and Stanford and Washington with only one loss, a defeat would push the Ducks closer to El Paso or Las Vegas than to Pasadena or Tempe.
Oregon fell all the way to #11 in the polls, and was unranked in the first BCS rankings headed into the game. Despite their undefeated record, Washington State stood at #14 in the rankings and #15 in the BCS standings. Oregon, even with a win, would need considerable help to move up in the BCS rankings as eight teams entered the day with undefeated records. Washington State, without the burden of a loss, could possibly push itself into the top five of the BCS rankings with the strength of a win over Oregon. But as morning turned into afternoon on the hills of Eastern Washington, four of the undefeated eight went down. Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, UCLA, and Maryland all lost, raising the stakes immensely. A win made Washington State into legitimate national title contenders. For Oregon, a win kept their dreams on life support.
The game was widely projected to be a shootout, featuring two of the top ten offenses in the nation. The Cougar quarterback, Jason Gesser, led the conference in total offense at 272 yards per game, as the Wazzu spread passing attack had put big points on the scoreboard—the season low was 34 in a win against the Beavers. Oregon hadn’t scored fewer than 38 points in five weeks.
Fans knew as soon as the broadcast came on air that the expected shootout wasn’t going to happen. A driving wind and steady northwest rain wouldn’t be conducive to that kind of game. Further, the pressure created by both defenses early ensured that the quarterbacks would never get the time to play pitch and catch. While Gesser was able to scramble out of trouble to scamper for a first down on the Cougars’ first series, he was hit on three straight plays after that culminating in a Darrell Wright sack that forced Washington State to punt. Oregon suffered the same fate on their attempted passes—Harrington had no time for the receivers to get downfield due to a persistent pass rush by the Cougar defensive line. The first quarter would end scoreless, due largely to the weather and the pressure that each defense was creating on the opposing quarterback. However, two narratives were emerging that would shape the middle of the game: Oregon was bringing heavy defensive pressure by not just rushing linemen, but blitzing from the linebackers and secondary. This was not only bothering Gesser, but Wazzu running backs were being met and driven back at the line of scrimmage. Conversely, Cougar linebackers were content to be reactionary. While the Oregon offensive line was ineffective in passblocking, they were opening up holes for the running game, and Maurice Morris had 75 yards on 11 carries in the quarter, almost all of them straight up the middle. Oregon hadn’t scored, but had twice come close—two Duck drives ended inside the Washington State 40-yard line, but heading into the driving wind, Mike Bellotti elected to punt both times, even with the strong legged Jared Siegel as the kicker. In many ways, the Ducks dominated the Cougars in the quarter—outgaining them by nearly a hundred yards, but had nothing to show for it.
In spite of Oregon’s consistent success on the ground, Washington State would be the first to find the scoreboard. Despite Gesser’s talents, it was customary for Matt Kegel to take snaps for one series per game—the first series of the second quarter. Washington State used the switch to pull a trick out of the bag. On his first play, Kegel tossed the ball to Collin Henderson on a reverse play. Henderson stopped, looked back, and threw the ball downfield back to Kegel. The Ducks had the play well covered, with two defensive backs fighting Kegel for the ball. The quarterback out-jumped them both and ran 62 yards to the 18 before being tackled. That play alone was twice as many yards as the Cougars had gained in the first quarter. They would get nothing more on that drive, but Drew Dunning nailed the field goal. Oregon had outplayed Wazzu the entire game, yet trailed, 3-0.\
Oregon would respond.
The only play that had been working in the passing game was a quick pass to Samie Parker in the flat. The play often doesn’t lead to many yards, but occasionally, the receiver breaks one. On the first play of the drive, Parker broke one for 17 yards, Oregon’s first big play in the passing game. Oregon had a first and ten at their own 37 when the hero of the day emerged.
For the first time, Onterrio Smith checked in at tailback.
As he did often that day, Smith made his presence felt immediately. On his first play, Smith went off the right tackle, cut back, then cut back again.
Smith would get nine more yards on his next two carries, before the Ducks ran a Harrington option on third and one. Joey fumbled, the ball rolled forward, and three Washington State players jumped on it at the ten yard line.\
But so did an Oregon player, and he got it. Not only did Oregon retain possession, they had gained ten yards on the fumble. The Ducks would again hand the ball off to Smith on the next play. Cougar linebacker Billy Newman stood at the five yard line, in perfect position to make the open field tackle. Instead, he ended up on his back. Smith plowed over Newman, and churned his way into the end zone. Oregon was on the board at last, as they staked a 7-3 lead.
Smith rushed for 48 yards on four carries on the drive, but would not been seen again for the half. Washington State would have two drives go nowhere, Gesser unable to get anything going amid heavy pressure that included another sack by Kevin Mitchell. Oregon’s remaining drive was stalled by a personal foul penalty, and darkness descended on the Palouse as we entered halftime.
Oregon would get the ball to start the second half, and started going nowhere fast. Maurice Morris looked to have a 36 yard run on the first play from scrimmage, but it was called back due to holding. Morris had no gain on the next two carries, leaving Oregon with 3rd and 14 inside their own ten yard line.
Enter Onterrio Smith, again. He got 20. Oregon was able to pick up a couple more first downs on a 12 yard Smith run, and some quick passes to Parker and Jason Willis. At the 42, Harrington handed the ball to Onterrio right up the middle. He smashed through one weak arm-tackle on his way to the end zone. Smith’s only two appearances to that point were on Oregon’s two scoring drives. He combined for 124 yards on nine carries on those drives.
Washington State responded with a three and out and, with Smith out of the game, the Ducks picked up only one first down on their next possession. The Cougars gave Oregon a scare, as Michael Bush had a long pass in his hands before Keith Lewis was able to knock it away at the last second. But it was the only time Gesser got any protection, and WSU was again forced to punt.
In the closing minutes of the third quarter, It looked like Oregon was going to put the game away. Getting the ball at their own 37, Keenan Howry quickly broke off a 27 yard reception, and Morris finally broke daylight without being touched. Oregon should have been ahead 21-7 at that point going into the fourth, but just as he was turning on that last gear, Morris came up lame, allowing the Cougars to tackle him on the ten yard line. Smith would come in a rush Oregon down to the one yard line, setting up third and goal as the third quarter clock expired. With the way Washington State had struggled all game, a touchdown would surely ice the game away.
As fourth quarter started, Smith easily got to the endzone untouched. However, celebration was muted as the never-welcome presence of Jay Stricherz entered the television screen. False start. Smith would go nowhere on the next play, and the ensuing Siegel field goal gave the Ducks only a 17-3 lead. Safe, but still two touchdowns, the exact lead that Oregon had blown a week earlier.
Washington State wasted no time. Cougar RB Dave Minnich found the holes that he hadn’t been getting all game. Washington State marched 72 yards in eight plays, their only sustained drive, with Minnich gaining 63 of those on the ground. Martin Stadium went wild, and the Cougars had seized momentum.
The lead was 17-10 Oregon. It looked like the Ducks were going to put the game away, as Smith rumbled 41 yards to midfield. The next play was Keenan Howry in the flat. Howry catches the ball, turns upfield, and pop. The ball comes out. Washington State recovers. Cougar football at the 40. The Ducks had strung together plays all day. Onterrio Smith was taking whatever he wanted. Washington State had one drive and one trick play, and all the while their defense was being gashed at will by the Oregon run game. Yet, because Duck drives were always stalling in Cougar territory, Washington State found themselves a midfield with a chance to tie it.
Instead, they went three and out. Oregon had won a reprieve from the inopportune turnover, and Superman wasn’t going to let it go to waste. Two plays. 80 yards. Touchdown, Onterrio freaking Smith. The second play was a 73 yarder that went for the touchdown. On that play, Smith broke Ahmad Rashad’s school record for rushing yards in a game. At this point, he was over 260.
However, nothing came easy that season. The Wisconsin and USC games had gone down to the final minute. UCLA and Oregon State would end up doing so as well. The football gods would have this one be no different.
Oregon had a two touchdown lead with 6:32 to go. Cougar ball at their own 30. An assignment was blown. Michael Bush was streaking down the middle of the field eight yards ahead of the nearest defender. The only thing keeping this from being a touchdown was that Gesser threw a wobbly duck that Bush had to hold way up for. It allowed Oregon to catch up and make the tackle, but the pass still went for 62 yards. Three plays later, WSU was in the end zone, and it was again a seven point game, with 4:25 to go.
The hope was that with Onterrio’s success, he could pound the rock and milk the game away. He was able to grind out two first downs and force Washington State to use two timeouts, but the drive again stalled at midfield. The Cougars would get one last chance to tie it up with 1:34 to play.
Now, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: what is the point of the prevent defense? Yes, I understand the point of not wanting to let anything get behind you with a blown coverage or something. But when a team needs to go 88 yards in a minute and a half, they should not sniff anywhere near the end zone. Instead, Cougar wideout are allowed anything they want. 23 yards over the middle to Nikoa McElrath. McElrath again for nine. Bush for seven. Bush for 14. McElrath again for 22. Five plays. Five completions. First and goal Washington State from the 8. After a spike to stop the clock, the Cougars were going to get three chances at the end zone with :11 on the clock.
The first play was a brilliant call by Cougar coach Mike Price. 6’6" receiver Michael Bush found himself matched up on the 5’8" Rashad Bauman. A nearly identical matchup resulted in a fourth quarter touchdown in the previous game against Stanford, where Cardinal QB Chris Lewis threw a jump ball to 6’8" Teyo Johnson over Bauman. Lewis threw a perfect pass that Johnson was able to catch at the peak of his jump like it was a basketball rebound. There was nothing Bauman could do, as his outstretched hand was a foot away from the football. This was the same situation (so similar in fact that both Johnson and Bush were on their schools’ basketball teams as well), except Bush, instead of keeping the ball up, tried to bring the ball in. Bauman was able to get his hand in and pry it away. Incomplete.
The next play was a mistake from Gesser that should have ended the game. He threw a laser into the endzone—right into the hands of Oregon linebacker David Morretti. Morretti dropped it. Wazzu would have one last chance with three seconds left.
They went back to that jump ball play, figuring that with a crowed endzone, but a 6’6" hoopster, it was their best shot. Gesser found Bush, who this time was lined up against a taller player, linebacker Wesly Mallard. Gesser underthrew the ball. Mallard swatted it away. The Ducks had survived.
When the dust settled, Oregon had rushed for 445 yards, breaking the previous school record. Onterrio Smith, in what still stands as the most dominating single performance I have seen from a Duck, had 285 yards despite playing only one series in the first half. Morris had 138 of his own. The defense did their job, holding Gesser to 17/37 passing. Yet, in spite of Oregon’s statistical domination, the Ducks suffered from lack of a consistent passing game (Harrington passed for only 119 yards) and were ultimately unable to finish drives that could have put the game out of reach.
Washington State would prove that their hot start was no fluke. They would win their next two, but an Apple Cup loss to the hated Huskies left them tied with Washington for second place in the conference. UW would go to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl, while the Cougars had the indignity of going to El Paso. They would go on to beat Purdue, securing the first of what would be three consecutive ten win seasons.
Of course, the Ducks would to on to win out the season, and the wild upsets continued, allowing Oregon to finish the regular season #2 in both human polls. Unfortunately, the computers disagreed, ranking the Ducks not only behind a Nebraska team that had just been crushed by Colorado and didn’t make their conference championship game, but also behind that Colorado team that had two losses on the season. Nebraska, the third place team in the Big XII, would play Miami for the national championship. Oregon would go on to obliterate Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, capping what was to that point the best season in school history.