Though conference rivals for the past 12 years, Oregon and Colorado did not first play in football until after WWII. That game was a big victory for the Ducks, 42-14 at home on October 15, 1949. The Buffaloes avenged the prior loss 21-7 when the Ducks made the return trip to Boulder on November 18, 1950. The programs played further home-and-home series in ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Colorado swept Oregon in ‘67 and ‘68, but the other games were evenly split.
The teams then played back to back home and home series from 1984 to 1987. The Ducks beat the Buffaloes twice in Eugene but had lost in Boulder. Oregon returned to Folsom Field in the season opening game for both teams in 1987. Oregon entered as heavy underdogs starting an unheralded true freshman quarterback named Bill Musgrave. The Ducks pulled a major upset 10-7 to even the all time series at 6 wins each. * It would be the last regular season game between the two programs until Colorado joined the Pac-12.
* Yes, young readers, there was a time when the name Bill Musgrave was associated with making a team better.
In 1995 new coaches took over both teams, Mike Bellotti at Oregon and Rick Neuheisel at Colorado. Each team posted 9-2 regular season records and finished in second place in their respective conferences. But when the teams took the field at the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day 1996 it quickly became obvious they were not true peers. Oregon took a 6-0 lead in the first quarter but Colorado finished the game with 38 unanswered points. Neuheisel would earn Duck fans eternal enmity by extending a drive with a fake punt in the second half well after the ultimate outcome had been decided.
With hindsight, this disappointing performance was a turning point for Duck football. In meetings after the game, coach Bellotti and new athletic director Bill Moos made plans for the infrastructure the Oregon program would need to compete with major programs outside of the Pac-10. This would lead to an indoor practice field in the Moshofsky center along with refurbished locker rooms and offices for the entire football program. The Ducks have been on the cutting edge of athletic facilities ever since.
Bellotti and the Ducks got their chance for payback against Neuheisel and the Buffaloes on Christmas Day 1998 in the Aloha Bowl played in Honolulu, HI. Oregon came out flat, spotting Colorado a 17-0 lead that stretched to 37-14 at halftime. A furious 4th quarter comeback led by the Ducks senior QB, and future first round draft pick, Akili Smith came up short in a 51-43 loss. Coach Bellotti felt the Ducks had failed to play up to their potential and said in his post game press conference: “The better team lost today.” Neuheisel would add insult to injury when reporters quoted the sentiment to him, replying simply: “Scoreboard baby.”
Oregon would be matched against Colorado again (though the “golden boy” Neuheisel had moved to Seattle by then) in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2001 season in a match up between the Pac-10 and Big XII champions. Both teams felt that they, rather than BCS system #2 Nebraska, should have been given the chance to play Miami for the national championship in the Rose Bowl. Indeed, Colorado had utterly dominated Nebraska in their regular season match up. Colorado’s powerful running game had barely been slowed all season. The common narrative was that an undersized Oregon defense was outmatched and the more physical Buffaloes would handle the Ducks.
Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti’s “little Duckies” rose to the challenge, holding the Buffaloes to a net 49 yards on the ground. In a near mirror image of the 1996 Cotton Bowl Colorado took an early 7-0 lead but Oregon scored the next 38 consecutive points (without even needing a fake punt to do it). In the 4th quarter Colorado tacked on a few “garbage time” scores for a 38-16 final. At the time, the 11-1 season and #2 AP poll final ranking was the high point in the history of Duck football.
By the time the school joined the Pac-12 in 2011 a series of off field scandals and poor coaching hires had left Colorado football a shadow of its former self. As conference opponents the Ducks have played the Buffaloes nine times. The only Colorado victory came at Autzen in 2016 in a game that is now regarded as exposing the deficiencies in head coach Mark Helfrich’s management of the Oregon program.
With the disintegration of the Pac-12 the game today in Eugene will be the teams’ last as conference opponents, and very likely the last for many years to come. Duck fans hope to make coach Deion Sanders’ experience at Autzen a memorable one. Preferably the kind that causes him to wake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night for years to come…