Refuse to lose: How Oregon won the first Regular Season overtime game in college football history
Overtime rules had existed for decades in professional football, but the collegiate game was slow to come around to extending games beyond regulation. Ties weren’t commonplace, but they did happen. Oregon had in fact played in the final 0-0 tie, the 1983 Civil War game vs. Oregon State, a game so bad it was coined “The Toilet Bowl.”
In 1996 the NCAA finally relented and ended the era of college football ties, implementing overtime rules. But unlike the NFL it was not first score wins (sudden death), something that often infuriated fans because the victor was largely dependent on which team won the coin toss. The NCAA established rules where each team would get at least one possession, if the score remained tied after the first round, a second round of overtime would then be played and so on. The team that had played offense in the first round would then go second in the next round, and with each successive round this would continue to switch until one team had a higher score at the end of a round of overtime play.
If it sounds complex, it was. Or at least, it was new. The ball would be placed arbitrarily on the 25-yard line within field goal range giving each team a chance to quickly score from that location.
But why the 25-yard line?
Why does each team get a chance to score?
Why rotate who goes first with each round?
The overtime rules for college football would take effect at the start of the 1996 season. Coaches talked through the rules with their players, reps in practice were dedicated to overtime drills. Yet nobody really knew quite how it would work until there was an actual overtime game played.
It wouldn’t take long to find out, and perhaps fitting that the last team to play in a 0-0 tie would be the first to play in an overtime game.
The Oregon Ducks and Fresno State Bulldogs had some interesting history linking the two programs. Bulldog Stadium, built in 1980, had been modeled directly after Oregon’s Autzen Stadium in nearly every way. The inaugural game played at Bulldog Stadium was between Oregon and Fresno State in 1981, a game that the Bulldogs won 23-16.
In 1996 the first game of the season had Oregon making their first return trip to Fresno since that loss. Oregon had a new defensive coordinator in Rich Stubler, who had spent the previous 16 seasons in the Canadian Football League coaching with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. On the opposite sideline was Fresno State offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, a quarterback who had played one game with Hamilton under Coach Stubler years earlier as an emergency safety due to injuries, and even had an interception. Two years later, Tedford would become Oregon’s offensive coordinator.
While it had been 14 years since Oregon and Fresno State last played, there would be numerous rematches to follow in the coming years between the two teams, but none would prove to be as memorable as the game played in Fresno on August 31st, 1996, the first overtime game in college football history.
The 1996 Ducks looked different from what had been the norm the last few years. Rich Brooks was now in his 2nd year of coaching the St. Louis Rams, Mike Bellotti was the big man in charge. Both coordinators had to be replaced from the previous year. 1995 offensive coordinator Al Borges had left after one year, and was replaced with Dirk Koetter. Defensive coordinator Charlie Waters had left for an NFL job, with Stubler brought in to replace him, for the team on both sides of the ball it was the third new coordinator in three years.
Stubler brought with him a defense he had used to great success in the Canadian Football League, a zone scheme known as the “edge defense” that also included the defensive line backing off of the ball a yard. The concept was to give the defensive linemen a chance to build momentum before colliding with the offensive line and get a better read on the developing play, which in theory worked…in theory. It was successful in the CFL, but the CFL style of play was more of a pass-first game, the big question remained as to if this concept would be effective in stopping the run. It was a huge adjustment for the Oregon defense, a crew that had come to be known as “Gang Green,” a stout attacking 3-4 man coverage blitz scheme that was the calling card of Oregon’s football program.
For the upperclassmen there was a huge learning curve, a team that had played man-to-man almost exclusively for years suddenly had to learn to play zone. The linemen didn’t understand why they weren’t lining up on the ball the way they had for their whole playing careers, it was foreign to them.
“The edge defense, I do get what Stubler was trying to do,” said Kenny Wheaton, a junior cornerback and team leader for the 1996 defense. “But he came to a team that primarily ran a man-to-man blitz, and he tried to make us a zone team and didn’t have the right personnel for it. We were used to playing our gaps and sending pressure. It could have worked if we had the players and understood what he was trying to do, it would have made it a lot easier on all of us, but it’s tough learning under three different coordinators, learning three new systems. I never had the same defensive coordinator the whole time I was at Oregon. Each coach was special in their own way, but they all had a different way of doing things and it was too confusing.”
“Guys didn’t buy in to the defense, and I admit I was one of those guys. For the most part 95% of us didn’t buy into it until training camp, especially the veterans as we had been so successful doing things our way, but by then it was too late. There were times I was playing inside nickel, then corner, then safety. I put a lot of that on myself because at that time I was a team leader, it was nothing against coach Stubler, it was because it was something new, nobody understood why we were changing things so much when we had been so good.”
Opening the season in Fresno was an exciting trip for one Oregon player in particular, starting senior quarterback Tony Graziani, who had grown up in Modesto, CA, only about an hour’s drive away. Graziani was in his second year as starting quarterback, an agile lefty with the ability to improvise when plays went sour and possessing a cannon for an arm. Graziani was also on a learning curve, learning a new system under his third offensive coordinator. Many family and friends would be on hand, and the Fresno fans were well aware of the local kid who had left the area to find success up north in Oregon.
“There was a lot of pressure on me to go to Fresno State, I took a bunch of heat from the locals when I chose Oregon,” Tony Graziani remembers, now retired after a lengthy career in the NFL and Arena League, who stays close to football by doing national radio broadcasts of NFL games. “Trent Dilfer was my host on my recruiting trip there, but I really wanted to get out of the valley and I had a great relationship with Coach (Rich) Brooks and Coach (Mike) Bellotti.”
Fresno State wasn’t unfamiliar with Oregon either, as assistant coach Kelly Skipper had been a high school superstar at Churchill High School in Eugene, OR, in the early 80s before a successful career at Fresno State where he still held several rushing records. Skipper grew up a Duck fan and stayed close to his hometown, visiting often and keeping an eye on the Ducks football team with the 1996 game and the subsequent 1997 rematch back in Eugene on the schedule.
Fresno State featured a powerful running back under Skipper’s tutelage, Michael Pittman, who would go on to a very successful career in the NFL. Pittman could beat a team with his speed, or was powerful enough to run over them. Fresno State had a reputation for blue-collar play, hard-hitting ground & pound style football, a reflection of the hard-working people of the central valley. None represented that philosophy better than Pittman, a combination of punishing size and speed. They had been incredibly successful despite disappointing overall records, being ranked in the top 10 in the nation in total offense five of the past six seasons.
Oregon senior linebacker Reggie Jordan was one of a handful of holdovers from the glory days of the Gang Green defense that had become famous in 1994, along with several other highly-touted veterans, none better than junior cornerback Kenny Wheaton.
Wheaton had become famous two years prior as a freshman with his iconic pick six interception vs. Washington that spurred the improbable run to the Rose Bowl, but he was much more than just the one interception. Wheaton had finished third on the team in tackles in 1995 as a cornerback and named 2nd team All-American, a great player with a nose for the ball and ability to hit that was rarely seen from the CB position.
“It was great being able to practice against Kenny Wheaton everyday,” said Graziani. “Kenny was one of the most instinctual smart football players I have ever been around, one of the better I ever played with, he was special. I loved going against him, we made each other better, we used to talk so much trash. He knew if he could defend a pass from me or if I could get one past him that we could do it against anybody.”
Oregon’s offense featured a rotating crew of running backs including Kevin Parker, Jerry Brown and JC transfer Saladin McCullough all trying to replace the huge void left by graduated senior Ricky Whittle. Tight end Josh Wilcox epitomized the blue-collar hard-work mentality for the Ducks, while young wide receiver Patrick Johnson was one of the best deep threats in the country, though still somewhat inconsistent while still learning the nuances of the receiver position.
It is often said teams make the most progress between their first and second game, needing a tune-up game to start the season shaking off the rust of the off-season and getting into sync. This certainly applied to both teams as sloppy play defined the early going, but the one thing the game had no shortage of was big hits. In typical style for Oregon-Fresno State matchups that would follow, it wasn’t always pretty, but made up for aesthetics through sheer brutality.
In the opening drive Reggie Jordan made his presence felt early bringing down a Fresno player on a reverse for a 9-yard loss. Fresno State in turn responded with a couple big hits, quickly forcing an Oregon punt.
After the initial punts, Oregon struck the first blow. On Oregon’s second possession Tony Graziani dropped back and threw deep to Patrick Johnson, who had sprinted past the safeties bringing in the ball for an impressive 88-yard touchdown.
“I just tried to throw it as far as I could, I figured if you’re going to go deep you might as well toss it up to the fastest guy in the nation, Patrick Johnson,” said Graziani. “Thankfully I hit him in stride and he had the speed to break away.”
Fresno State answered with several long runs by Pittman, a sign of things to come, but couldn’t capitalize. Things would turn worse for Fresno in the short term, as another long drive into Oregon territory would end abruptly when Kenny Wheaton intercepted a pass along the sideline and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown.
“I pride myself on making plays before the game even starts, from watching film, ” Kenny Wheaton said, now retired after a long career in the NFL and CFL. “As a defensive back I learned from film that if the receiver comes out lined up on the numbers in a certain position that he was running an out pattern, so I knew before the snap he was running an out if they threw my way. I saw it, jumped it, and it was a clear path to the endzone. I had to cut back, couldn’t let the QB tackle me, but it was great to make a play like that for the team.”
Oregon was rolling 14-0, but there was reason to be concerned…Oregon’s secondary seemed more than up to the task, but this odd edge defensive scheme was having zero luck stopping Fresno State’s run game as Michael Pittman was chewing up big chunks of yards with every carry. If Fresno focused on running between the tackles and quit throwing towards Kenny Wheaton, they could potentially dominate this game.
It seemed to be playing right into Fresno State’s gameplan for the Ducks defensive line to line up a yard off the ball, for a team that liked to run right at a defense between the tackles it was a gift to give the Fresno offensive line momentum running downhill. After five carries Pittman was already over 40 yards, and the Bulldogs seemed more than content to slow down the game grinding it out 4-5 yards a pop. Oregon’s defense had the speed to roam sideline-to-sideline, but a shortage of healthy defensive linemen made for big run holes for Pittman and co.
Early in the 2nd quarter a deep play-action pass beat Kenny Wheaton to the corner, setting up Fresno State near the goal line, leading to an easy touchdown run by Michael Pittman.
While Oregon was leading thanks to two big plays, things were not clicking. The defense was having trouble against the run, and Oregon’s receivers were having a bad case of the drops. The running back-by-committee from Oregon was having zero success finding any running lanes. The Ducks offense was off the field almost as quickly as it got on, and the Oregon defense was quickly tiring in the Fresno heat.
Perhaps it was first game jitters, perhaps it was playing close to home in front of friends and family, or maybe it was the relentless pass rush, but Graziani and the rest of the Duck offense was nowhere to be found.
“We had a new offensive coordinator, it was Coach (Dirk) Koetter’s first game,” Graziani recalls. “We were trying to get on the same page with him, but we had a lot of drops throughout the game, and every time it felt like we were finally getting on a roll we would shoot ourselves in the foot.”
However, Fresno State looked impatient, unwilling to grind out the game on the ground. They got pass happy, testing Oregon’s secondary deep with the safeties playing up near the line to stop Pittman. A dropped second interception by Kenny Wheaton on a deep pass where the ball was knocked out of his hands by Oregon cornerback Eric Edwards was quickly redeemed when Wheaton intercepted a pass on the following play, returning it 20 yards before eventually being brought down. With his second interception, Wheaton was momentarily the leading receiver in the game and also led in total yards, a bizarre anomaly for a cornerback.
“I guess they decided that they were going to go after me,” Kenny Wheaton remembers. “Their big wide receiver Brian Roberson made some comments in the newspapers before the game that he didn’t think I was that good and was coming after me. I took it personal, I was a 2nd team All-American the year before, I thought it was disrespectful. I came into that game with a chip on my shoulder and the mindset that you’re not gonna get it on my side.”
Fresno State’s offense had been known for having a potent offense in previous years, so perhaps it was not completely unexpected that Fresno would move the ball, but the way that the Bulldogs so easily ran at will against this supposedly innovative new defensive scheme was alarming. It was clear that the edge defense was completely ineffective at slowing down Fresno’s ground assault. FSU liked to play traditional 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust smashmouth football, but Oregon was giving them 3 yards before the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust. Fresno followed one long drive with another slowly moving the chains with one physical runs predominantly with Pittman. While Oregon had managed early to gouge Fresno with two big scoring plays, the Bulldogs were the exact opposite, 4-5 yards at a time content to slowly pound Oregon’s defense into submission methodically trekking down the field.
Yet while Oregon’s defense would bend badly in the middle of the field, they made life difficult whenever Fresno State got into scoring range. Oregon safety Brandon McLemore almost brought in an interception in the endzone but couldn’t hold onto it, the defense clearly fatigued as a Fresno drive progressed onto its 13th play from scrimmage. The next play the defense was again opportunistic, or maybe just lucky, as linebacker Caleb Smith’s leg knocked the ball loose from Pittman causing a fumble, recovered by Oregon at the 1-yard line.
A couple runs up the gut ran out the clock to halftime. Oregon led 14-7, but the momentum was clearly in Fresno State’s favor, Oregon leading solely because of the three forced turnovers and two long plays. The Ducks had been lucky, but at some point the offense would have to do something, Oregon’s defense looked completely gassed from the Fresno heat and lengthy drives.
Halftime offered no rest for the tired Duck defense, as the design of the stadium placed the visitor locker rooms so far away from the tunnel that the team has to sprint to reach it to quickly review the half and go over adjustments, then sprint back to return within the allotted time. For a team fatigued after long FSU drives and sweating in the Fresno heat, this was just cruel. No rest would come for the defense for quite some time.
The 2nd half began with Fresno State once again getting the ball, but the Bulldogs became impatient and pass happy. A Fresno fumble by their QB on a scramble was incorrectly called down, what should have been Fresno State’s fourth turnover of the day, and the Bulldogs immediately took advantage on a long pass completion to WR Brian Roberson where cornerback Eric Edwards got turned around, setting up FSU in the redzone.
A series of runs led to a short touchdown, despite numerous long drives that had ended with turnovers or stalls, Fresno State finally had tied the score at 14-14.
Fresno State was absolutely dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. After the way the previous season had ended with a whimper in an embarrassing loss to Colorado in the Cotton Bowl, it looked like the tough times would likely continue. Nothing for Oregon was working except when Fresno foolishly chose to throw the ball in Wheaton’s direction. The defense couldn’t figure out how to play in this new edge defense, the offense couldn’t connect on any throws or create run lanes. It could be a long season ahead. Great individual efforts, particularly by Reggie Jordan, Kenny Wheaton, and Ryan Klaasen (who already had 16 tackles in the game by the third quarter) couldn’t carry the team by themselves.
The 3rd quarter continued where the 2nd quarter left off, long methodical drives by Fresno State and 3-and-outs for Oregon. The Ducks were extraordinarily fortunate for the score to be tied, but unless the offense started moving the ball that would be only temporary. There were broken tackles, big run lanes; all the signs of a tired defense unable to stop Fresno’s attack. By the mid-3rd quarter Fresno State had out-rushed Oregon 173-23 and held a 17-14 lead, but if not for the three turnovers this one might well be a blowout.
Finally, Oregon’s offense came alive. In what came to be his signature play throughout his career, tight end Blake Spence ran a seam route past the linebackers finding open space in the middle of the field for a 26-yard gain.
A few plays later a flea flicker resulted in a 32-yard touchdown pass to Damon Griffin. Again, the big play was coming through keeping Oregon in the game, but Fresno State continued to be the far more impressive team. Oregon had scored on 32 and 88-yard pass plays and a 69-yard pick-six, beyond that nothing had worked.
“On the flea flicker, we just wanted to get back on the scoreboard,” said Graziani. “We knew we had to get back on the scoreboard. The defense had been grumbling in the first half with the amount they had to play, unfortunately that drive was so quick they didn’t get much rest.”
A bruising run by Michael Pittman finished off yet another long 16-play drive to retake the lead 24-21, a play that also injured Oregon safety Brandon McLemore in a wicked collision at the goal line. Oregon’s defense was running on fumes, and the offense had done nothing to give them a chance to rest. The broadcast team Todd McKim and Ken Woody could only marvel at the dominance, “I can’t remember the last time Oregon’s defense gave up so much yardage on the ground,” said McKim, bewildered.
By the mid-4th quarter Oregon had run for only 13 yards in the 2nd half, but Graziani managed to make a play with his feet, buying time rolling out and throwing against his body to find wide receiver Jibri Hodge for a first down.
Oregon was down, but not out. Turnovers and lucky plays had kept them in it, but there was no quit in the Ducks. Oregon had brought five tailbacks on the travel roster, but had all but abandoned all aspects of the run game to Fresno State’s tough defense, it was an all-out pass attack by the Ducks to just keeping hanging on. Desperate to give the defense some rest knowing Fresno State could continue to run at will, Oregon went for it on a 4th & 4, but the pass intended for tight end Josh Wilcox was knocked away.
Then, something changed, Oregon awoke from their fatigued slumber. Fresno State had bled the clock with a 3-point lead, but a big play by LB Reggie Jordan forced a 4th down. The defense had finally made a stop.
The subsequent punt pinned Oregon at the 1-yard line, needing to go the length of the field to win with little time left on the clock. The task ahead was daunting, and while the defense sat on the sidelines sucking oxygen the offense knew it was now or never.
Oregon had done very little all day, plagued with dropped passes and the inability to slow Fresno’s rushing attack. The Ducks were 1 for-8 on converting 3rd downs in the game, but on 3rd down when a play absolutely had to be made, somehow quarterback Tony Graziani found a way. Breaking nearly every rule there is about playing quarterback, Graziani rolled out in the endzone buying time with his feet, running out of real estate pinning himself in the corner of the endzone he then threw across his body to the opposite side of the field connecting with running back Kevin Parker for a first down.
“I just remember it being third down and I had to make a play,” said Graziani. “I could always do that well, when a play broke containment I could get out of the pocket and make plays with my feet. I was very fortunate to convert that play, and it really jump-started our offense. It reinvigorated us, woke us up, it was absolutely do or die and somehow we made a play to stay in it. Fresno State head coach Jim Sweeney approached me after the game and said that was the play that lost the game for them, and that if I had decided to be a Bulldog the game would have been a blowout, I appreciated that.”
Oregon had escaped from their own endzone, but still had a long way to go to steal this victory away from this Bulldog team that had vastly outplayed Oregon.
Graziani then threw a short dump off pass to fullback Eric Winn who rumbled his way upfield for a 15 yard gain.
Oregon then caught Fresno off-guard with a draw to Jerry Brown, who ran for a first down and got out of bounds to stop the clock.
Now at midfield, a deep pass to wide receiver Damon Griffin had Oregon on the edge of field goal range.
After a couple incompletions on 3rd & 10 Griffin again made a big play, catching a pass over the middle and taking a huge hit while diving to just barely get the first down.
Oregon had driven almost the length of the field, now set up on the 10-yard line with less than a minute left in the game. A touchdown would win it, a field goal would likely send the game to this crazy new college overtime scenario that nobody had ever experienced before.
Then came one of the strangest referee calls ever that almost gave the game back to Fresno State. Tony Graziani dropped back to throw, but a pass rusher was in his face. In a panic Graziani threw towards fullback Eric Winn, who was knocked down by a defender as Graziani was simultaneously knocked to the ground. A good 10-15 seconds passed until a flag was thrown. At first it seemed obvious to be either roughing the passer or pass interference against Fresno State for the hits sustained by both Graziani and Winn. But when the referee indicated intentional grounding, for a pass that nearly hit the receiver, the Oregon sideline exploded. Graziani and Kevin Parker pleaded with the referee, then ran to the next official and stated their case to them. Then the next official. Then the next official. How could they call intentional grounding in this situation, so close to the goal line, with almost no time left, when the pass almost hit the intended receiver?
Their pleas didn’t work, intentional grounding remained the call, and Oregon was now backed up to the 25 on 3rd down with almost no time left.
“It was just a horrible call,” Graziani remembers. “I mean I understand that the refs are human too. It was a really heated exchange because of the situation and time left, here was a Pac-10 team that had been to two new years day bowls in a row playing at a WAC school, I’m not gonna say the refs were trying to give the game to Fresno, but it was just a horrible call.”
With one chance left to try to win it, Graziani threw a beautiful pass on the move to the back of the endzone to true freshman wide receiver Tony Hartley, the first pass thrown his way in his career, but he dropped it despite the ball hitting him squarely in the hands behind the coverage. Hartley would go on to break nearly every receiving record at Oregon during his career, but it was an embarrassing way to start.
“Tony felt horrible about that,” Graziani recalls. “Obviously to drive all the way down and then for that to happen, I felt bad for Tony just for the fact that I knew how much he cared, but at least we had learned that we could drive on them so we felt good about overtime.”
The Ducks had improbably driven nearly the length of the field to steal the game away from Fresno State in their house, but a bad call and another bad drop had left them just short. With mere seconds remaining, Joshua Smith hit a 38-yard field goal, tying the game. Fresno State chose to run out the remaining clock, and the very first overtime game in college football history was about to begin.
There was a lengthy delay before the coin toss for overtime occurred, as each team huddled (as did the referees) to go over the new overtime rules, while the P.A. system went into it in great detail for the crowd. It had been explained and practiced in training camp, but to do it in a game for the first time was something different. Eventually after several minutes the coin toss occurred, with Oregon winning the flip and taking the ball second. This is common strategy today, but at the time nobody was quite sure how the overtime scenario would play out.
“Coach Bellotti had actually done a really good job of preparing the offense for overtime,” said Graziani. “He went over the rules, and we dedicated an entire practice in fall camp to overtime, so we had an idea of how it worked and what we wanted to do, but still nobody was exactly sure how it would work.”
The one great benefit about the delay was that Oregon’s defense was finally able to get a breather. It had been a long game for the Ducks defense, punished all night playing against a vicious running game and the offense going 3-and-out for much of it, the final drive Oregon put together to tie it was their first chance to rest since the opening kickoff. The distance to the Bulldog Stadium visitor locker rooms provided no relief at halftime. The long Oregon drive at the end and delay before the start of overtime was just what the Oregon defense needed to catch their breath and recoup for one final big effort. Not everyone was exactly clear on the overtime rules, but they knew if they could get a stop that the Ducks would probably win.
“It was explained and talked about in camp, but overtime was something none of us had ever been in,” said Wheaton. “Until you experience it there’s still some uncertainty. It was a shock, first time ever going into overtime, it was confusing from the start. I didn’t quite know what was going on, only thing I remember was that each team got the ball. There was no real strategy other than try to stop them. Fortunately the long drive and break before the start of overtime was a chance to rest. I’m not gonna lie, I was really hurting out there. It was a long game for our defense, first time I ever had to use oxygen on the sideline. During that break the veterans stepped up and said ‘they can’t score, stop them and we win.’ We may not have known exactly what the rules were, but we knew if we could just stop them once we would win.”
They would need every ounce of effort remaining in those fuel tanks running on fumes, legs feeling like jell-o. Fresno State took the ball first in overtime and immediately went back to what they did best, pounding Michael Pittman up the middle for a six yard gain. The next play it was Pittman again, but linebacker Peter Sirmon stepped into the hole and dropped him for just a yard. This set up a 3rd and 3, Oregon’s defense concerned with just one thing, stopping Fresno at all costs.
Fresno threw a pass putting the ball in their best receiver’s hands, Brian Roberson, but Sirmon again came up with a huge hit stopping him just short of the first down.
Not wanting to press their luck, Fresno State chose to take the easy field goal. Oregon had to now match it, or they could win with a touchdown…it didn’t take long to decide the outcome.
On Oregon’s first play Tony Graziani faked a handoff to Jerry Brown then dropped way back to avoid the pass rush, releasing a pass just before getting clobbered to the corner of the endzone to tight end Josh Wilcox, who had found a gap in the zone coverage. Wilcox reeled it in and snuck into the corner for a 25-yard touchdown. Ballgame over.
“It was a waggle to Josh (Wilcox),” Graziani remembers. “The safety came up on the play-action fake, and I was able to throw a good ball and he caught it, it was pretty surreal. I got hit pretty good at the end of it, I stayed on the ground for awhile, part exhaustion part jubilation part exuberance part relief.”
Oregon had somehow hung in there all game getting steamrolled play after play, but with the heroics of Kenny Wheaton and the late drive to tie it followed by the touchdown pass to Wilcox, Oregon had stepped into Bulldog Stadium and stolen an assured victory right out from under the Bulldogs. Not just any win, the first college football overtime win in history, 30-27, nothing like it had ever been seen before. Many Duck players were simply too exhausted to celebrate much, just happy to escape with a win.
“The game took a lot out of us,” said Graziani. “The emotions, the fatigue, the heat, we were just relieved and couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
Graziani had thrown 19 for 32 for 316 yards and 3 touchdowns, voted the player of the game. But the stats were only part of the story, despite a miserable performance leaving the defense hanging for 58 minutes of the game, Tony had rallied the troops and somehow willed the Ducks to get the job done when somebody absolutely needed to make a play. To top it all off, he had perservered in front of friends and family, and one teammate made sure that the Graziani family remembered this night forever.
“When Josh caught the touchdown, he kept the ball,” Graziani recalls. “My mom had been diagnosed with cancer and was going through treatment, they interviewed her before the game and she had this crazy wig on because all her hair had fallen out. Josh hung onto that ball all the way back to the showers, and as soon as he got out he presented the game-winning ball to my mom, painted with the score. I still have that ball, it means a lot to me.”
Kenny Wheaton played a lot of games over his long career in college, the NFL, and CFL, but this game stands out to him as well. “It’s in the top three of being the most exhausting games I ever played in. I was cramping up and sucking oxygen in the first half of that game, I’d never had that happen before. I don’t think there was ever a game where I played more snaps than that night. I was absolutely exhausted, I was just about finished in the first half, it was great we didn’t have to go out there again because we were beat. It was a big win, it was sweet, but there was also a real bitterness there because we had struggled. I remember telling my parents ‘we need to change something quick, we didn’t stop the run.’ If you don’t stop the run your chance of winning is slim to none. From a personal side I had a good game, I didn’t believe for a second coming into that season that I would get a lot of balls thrown my way but I ended up with two interceptions. From a team point of view, I was proud that we fought and so many young guys stepped up and played hard. They could have hung it up, but when it came down to it they made the plays needed to win. That game embodies what Oregon football is all about. We had a bunch of guys that had chips on their shoulder and they were going to fight to the end. We didn’t quit. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win. We had learned from the 1994 season to be stubborn, don’t quit, we didn’t know any better but to win.”
The game was the perfect representation for the 1996 season. It was a game where Oregon was still learning, adapting to new coaches and systems, not quite clicking, yet somehow hanging tough refusing to quit and finding a way to win. Grit and toughness overcame faults in scheme or overall talent for the system.
“We were a team that just refused to lose,” Graziani recalls. “We had a will to win, we were talented back then but not always as good as everybody else out there, but somehow we’d find a way to make a play when it was needed and get the victory.”
The Ducks would win their next two games, before going on a 5-game losing streak including another overtime game, after Tony Graziani suffered an injury that kept him out for much of his senior year. Halfway through the season the edge defensive scheme implemented by Rich Stubler was scrapped, and the Ducks returned to the standard defensive approach that had worked so well in 1994 & 1995, but it was too late. After spending all of spring practice and fall camp and the first few games trying to learn this new defense, to then scrap it and return to what had been done before was too much change and adjustment for the players to handle, and the defense suffered despite a phenomenal season from Kenny Wheaton. As a cornerback Wheaton would lead the team in tackles that year, something almost unheard of from a CB.
Still, there was no quit, and the Ducks rallied to win their last three games, including a dismantling of Oregon State in Corvallis, OR, 49-13, scoring at least 40 points in their last three games upon the return of Graziani. At 6-5 the Ducks did not get a bowl invite, one of only two years under Head Coach Mike Bellotti’s 13-year tenure that the Ducks would not participate in postseason play.
As with every year there would be attrition, as Tony Graziani, Reggie Jordan, and other seniors left, while Kenny Wheaton decided to become the first Oregon Duck player in school history to depart early for the NFL. Defensive Coordinator Rich Stubler and his experimental edge defense would be shown the door. Yet the lessons learned from 1996, the toughness and never-say-die attitude would carry over into future seasons, and the offensive explosion witnessed over the final three games extended into the 1997 and 1998 seasons as the Ducks transitioned from being one of the top defensive teams in the country in the Brooks-era into one the top offenses in the nation.
There would be more overtime games as well, including the very next season an overtime rematch against Fresno State that again saw Oregon emerge victorious in thrilling fashion, 43-40. Two years later a triple overtime thriller in 1999 vs. USC would be a night never to be forgotten in Autzen Stadium history, followed by an unbelievable 2000 double overtime win vs. ASU, and a double overtime victory at Arizona in 2009 most notable among Oregon’s future overtime games. Oregon rarely if ever lost games in overtime, somehow finding a way to rally when it counted most, just like that one hot night in Fresno when the overtime rules were first tested and an exhausted team simply refused to lose.
The first overtime in college football history in its entirety can be seen below:
-Kenny Wheaton lives in Dallas, TX and Phoenix, AZ, and operates the Kenny Wheaton Foundation, helping underprivileged youth in Oregon.
-Tony Graziani is retired from football after a 15 year career that spanned the NFL and Arena League. He resides in Palm Desert, CA with his family and works in real estate with TD Desert Properties, while also participating in national radio broadcasts of NFL games during the football season.