The Michigan series: How Oregon demolished 100 years of the biggest winning tradition in football

_______________________________________________________________________________

“We could tell they were not prepared, they had size but we ran right past them.”

-Kwame Agyeman

_______________________________________________________________________________

 

It was the ultimate matchup of new and old.  On one side Michigan, the winningest program in college football history, the epitome of success and tradition.  On the other side, up-and-comer Oregon, finding great success in recent years but for decades little more than an also-ran.

A home-and-home series was agreed to, with the first game being played at Oregon in 2003, and the following year a return trip to Michigan.  However, Michigan requested to push the game in Ann Arbor back a few years, to 2007.

By the time the dust settled and the clock hit zeroes on both games, college football as it had been for decades would never be the same.

The Michigan Wolverines WERE college football.  Playing them was beyond just playing a team, it was playing against a legacy.  The largest fan base, the most victories in history, the team, the helmets, the tradition, the Big House.  Michigan was a name that brought a hush to a room, they were right to be boastful, the record of over 100 years of success was more than enough validation to think of themselves as holier than thou.

At Oregon, there had been moments of success over the years mixed with a lot of pain, but since the late 80s the Ducks had been emerging as a young powerhouse out west.  Still, when Michigan came to Eugene, OR as the #3 team in the country with aspirations of a national championship, few gave Oregon much of a chance, even though the Ducks were ranked in the top-25 as well at #22.

Four years later that same general scenario would be replayed, when an Oregon team not discussed much came to Ann Arbor to take on a Michigan team that had been ranked #5 in the preseason stacked with awards finalist and a senior-laden roster with future NFL stars, but Michigan was reeling from an embarrassing home loss to open the season to a 1-AA team, Appalachian State.  It had been called the worst loss in program history, and the media anticipated the Wolverines to take their revenge out on Oregon in brutal fashion.

The 2003 game was a showcase, a chance for Oregon to validate itself, the game being broadcast on national television in the newly remodeled Autzen Stadium after being expanded the previous year.  Sure the Ducks were a good team, hell they had finished #2 in the country two years prior, but against this senior-laden Michigan team stacked with future draft picks and the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in Chris Perry it was easy to predict a steamrolling of the Oregon Ducks in their own house.

Thus was the setting, a loud, perfect day at Autzen Stadium where Oregon shocked the college football world.  Four years later in Ann Arbor, Oregon would not just do it again, but in such punishing fashion that it forever changed college football, destroying the traditional college football game and ushering in the new era of spread offenses.

Saturday, September 20th, 2003.  A bright sunny day in Eugene, OR with the world watching, as the 3-0 Michigan Wolverines arrive at a packed Autzen Stadium and record crowd.  Perry had dominated in the first few weeks of the season, all but assured to likely lead the nation in rushing at season’s end behind one of the biggest and most highly-touted offensive lines in the country.   The Wolverines featured future NFL players like John Navarre, Braylon Edwards, and Steve Breaston.  They were picked to be a national title contender, and Chris Perry was the main cog in the machine, destroying defenses in the first three weeks well on his way to be the next Wolverine to win the Heisman.

Michigan RB Chris Perry was the media darling in 2003, until he played against the Ducks

 

Oregon meanwhile was also 3-0 but hadn’t had a high-profile win yet to their season.  Featuring a dual-QB system with Kellen Clemens and Jason Fife, collectively their numbers equaled the top quarterback rating in the nation.

“Coaches kept us focused, it was a big opportunity for us to play a team that was that highly ranked,” former Oregon LB AJ Tuitele recalls, at the time a redshirt freshman who was a senior team captain in the 2007 rematch.

Oregon coaches may have preached all week how it was just another game, but ask anyone and this was more than just a game.  This was the greatest program in college football history coming to Oregon’s house, it was the ultimate test and Oregon fans and players all knew there was a greater meaning to this one.

“Watching the film we saw how well they ran the ball, Chris Perry went nuts running for a couple hundred yards every game,” recalls Justin Andrews, a linebacker for Oregon (01-05) who now coaches high school football in the San Francisco bay area.  “Perry was the leading rusher in the nation at the time, everyone was saying how the Michigan offensive line would dominate us and further Perry’s Heisman campaign.  I remember going to the meetings and DP (linebacker coach Don Pellum) and (Nick) Aliotti were feeling really confident in the gameplan to stop their run and force them to throw.  We knew they were going to come in and run, when they have a Heisman guy they try to hit you with him first.”

ABC broadcast the game live across the nation from Eugene with Keith Jackson and Dan Fouts calling the action.  All the talk was about Michigan, its tradition, Chris Perry’s Heisman Trophy, the Wolverines’ move towards the national championship that year.  What they saw instead was an Oregon team that proved that they could play with anyone.

“Everyone was calling me saying ‘ooh it’s Michigan, they have too much prestige.'” Andrews laughed.  “Coaches were trying to say it was like any other team, but you could tell it was a big game.  The coaches were confident though and that rubbed off on the team.  The whole atmosphere that day was like a bowl game, especially with them ranked #3.  Everyone in the program down to the trainers and staff, the atmosphere was charged in Autzen, you could feel the electricity in the air and the crowd noise was as loud as it gets.”

Linebacker Justin Andrews (2001-05) was a key contributor on special teams during his career

 

Oregon got the ball first and methodically drove the distance of the field burning up much of the first quarter, but at the goal line a Kellen Clemens touchdown run was incorrectly called down at the 1 yard line.  A penalty nullified what would have been a touchdown on 4th down, setting up a field goal that was blocked and returned for a touchdown.  Michigan missed the extra point, making it 6-0 without the Wolverines ever running an offensive play.

Another long Oregon drive chewed up almost the entire remaining first quarter, ending with the anomaly of Michigan leading the game 6-0 despite only having 5 yards of offense and one play from scrimmage by the quarter’s end.

“It was a little anticlimactic in the fact that our defense didn’t even step on the field in the first quarter,” Andrews remembers.  “We had run a no-huddle offense in practice every day, but we hadn’t shown it in games yet and that really surprised Michigan’s defense, they started getting gassed and we had some long drives.”

Oregon may not have been winning on the scoreboard, but time of possession was as lopsided as it gets.  When Michigan finally got the ball they tried to pound Chris Perry directly into Oregon’s line, bringing the old Big-10 3 yards and a cloud of dust style of traditional football.  It didn’t work.  Oregon’s defensive line was massive, with future NFL tackles Igor Olshansky and Junior Siavii plugging the gaps, and Perry was finding no room to run.  The gameplan became clear, Oregon was going to stack the box and force Michigan to beat them through the air.  The question was how stubborn would Michigan be before they started throwing.

Oregon took advantage of their possessions, taking the lead with a 19-yard touchdown run by Terrence Whitehead, followed by a botched fake punt by Michigan to give Oregon the ball at midfield.

A big catch by Tim Day followed by a touchdown run by quarterback Jason Fife gave Oregon a 14-6 lead, and for the first time there appeared to be a chink in the impregnable armor of Michigan’s 100+ years of superiority.

“When the D finally got out there, Michigan was so pompous they played right into our scheme, trying to run Perry right at us,” said Andrews.  “It was exciting because we already knew exactly what they would do, we were really confident in what we were going to do as far as our adjustments, and feeding off the energy from the crowd.  We could have played that same exact game against another opponent and it could have been as loud, but there was something special that day.  The fact that it was Michigan, all the history that name represents, to then outplay them and dominate them in several aspects of the game.  It was hard to be rivaled.”

If the crowd and team were starting to believe they could compete, they received a resounding boost when cornerback Steven Moore returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown.

“Noise is what Autzen is known for, but there were moments in that game particularly, like when Moore ran the punt back, I thought the place was going to collapse,” said Andrews.  “The whole place was rocking, I thought my eardrums were going to explode, it was a special atmosphere.  It was total craziness.”

At halftime Oregon had extended the lead to 21-6, but while fans and players were jubilant, this was still Michigan, there was still the aura, and this game wasn’t over by a longshot.  Chris Perry hadn’t had any running lanes to work with, but the Ducks couldn’t possibly keep Michigan down forever, could they?

In the 2nd half Michigan coach Lloyd Carr finally relinquished on the stubborn Big-10 ground pound offensive gameplan, all but completely abandoning the run game.  By game’s end Michigan QB John Navarre had thrown a very unMichigan-like 54 pass attempts, but it worked.  A couple interceptions by Steven Moore and Justin Phinisee helped to slow down Michigan’s comeback, but slowly in the 2nd half Michigan worked their way back into the game thanks to the 1-2 wide receiver combo of Braylon Edwards and Steve Breaston, being left in man coverage so that Oregon could stack the box to stop Chris Perry.

Oregon had a good scoring opportunity to extend the lead, but got greedy choosing instead to run a fake field goal attempt on an easy chipshot, coming up short.

Oregon managed to add a field goal later, but were holding on to a precarious small lead when magic happened.  Michigan, backed up into their own endzone feeling the full brunt of the Autzen crowd were forced into a third and long, and following an incompletion had to punt.

Oregon safety Keith Lewis had always had a flair for the dramatic as a Duck, from big interceptions to big hits to big plays, and his forte’ was blocking kicks.  As the kick block specialist, it seemed a no-brainer that Michigan would scheme to double him off the line, yet Lewis churned his legs pushing his blocker backwards into the foot of the Michigan punter, knocking the ball backwards into the endzone where Jordan Carey fell on the ball for a touchdown.

To somebody casually walking by in the neighborhood or just changing the channel to the broadcast at that moment might have thought a bomb had just gone off, the explosion of crowd noise could be felt for miles and across the country on the broadcast.

Thanks to the blocked punt and Michigan’s earlier missed extra point, Michigan was now down by 10 with the clock ticking away.  Justin Phinisee’s interception prevented a scoring chance, but Oregon squandered their opportunity.

Michigan quickly drove the field and scored to potentially bring it to within a field goal, but Oregon defensive tackle Igor Olshansky again came up with a big play blocking the extra point, forcing Michigan to have to score a touchdown to complete their comeback.

Oregon could once again not sustain a drive to burn off the clock, and gave Michigan one last chance to comeback. A long desperate drive had some late heroics with long catches, but a 4th down toss to Braylon Edwards went off his fingertips, and Oregon knelt on the ball preserving a 31-27 victory over the #3 ranked and undefeated Michigan Wolverines.

Chris Perry had been held to 23 yards on the ground, and Michigan had -3 yards rushing overall.  Devastated, Perry could only sulk on the bench on the sidelines with a towel over his head as his eardrums begged for mercy from the crowd, Michigan’s shot at a national title and Perry’s chance for a Heisman Trophy was over.

Michigan RB Chris Perry (#23) couldn't stand to watch as his Heisman dreams and Michigan's National Championship aspirations were sunk one day at Autzen Stadium

 

“The whole atmosphere of that game was unreal,” said Tuitele.  “The blocked punt and Moore’s punt return, it was just an unbelievable feeling.  You don’t really know how loud it is until you’re there, I think it shocked them.  We were really excited that we won, it was a really big accomplishment.  Knowing they were #3, their team was loaded, and for us to beat them that year put Oregon back on the map.”

A new team slogan emerged brought on by Oregon defensive tackle Igor Olshansky, “why not us?”  Why couldn’t Oregon compete with anybody in the country?  Why couldn’t Oregon be considered a national title contender?  Oregon QB Jason Fife’s touchdown run was featured on the front cover of Sports Illustrated that week with the tagline, ‘Rich, Cool, and 4-0.’

Oregon QB Jason Fife graced the cover of Sports Illustrated after the 31-27 win over Michigan in 2003

 

S.I. was right, on a national stage Oregon had proven that they were more than just flashy uniforms and amazing facilities, they were a team to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately the rest of the season did not go quite as planned, though there were some victories leading to an eventual berth in the 2003 Sun Bowl, but injuries took their toll.

In the offseason, Oregon managed to defeat Michigan in another aspect, recruiting.  Many recruits watched the 2003 Michigan-Oregon game, including two that were being recruited by both schools.

Kwame Agyeman, a native of Itasca, IL, had grown up in Big-10 country hearing about Michigan and Ohio State, but he also had his eyes set on Oregon as a possibility out west.

“What made me notice Oregon was their 2002 Fiesta Bowl victory over Colorado, seeing Maurice Morris and Samie Parker go wild.  I didn’t know much about them, but they were up and coming,” Agyeman remembers.  “Coach (Lloyd) Carr had recruited me to Michigan and I attended their camp, and they whole thing was one big propaganda show about their history and tradition.  Coach Carr told me ‘yeah you COULD go to Oregon, but they don’t have a winning tradition there.”

Agyeman continued, “But when I watched that 03 Michigan-Oregon game, I saw Michigan jumping offsides a lot, I saw the atmosphere at Autzen, I aw that Oregon had some players, the Ducks weren’t a one-year fluke.  That game had a big impact on me choosing Oregon over Michigan, tradition is great and al but when I came on my recruiting trip to Oregon so many guys commit, I decided I wanted to as well, we wanted to be a part of our own winning tradition at Oregon.”

Agyeman wasn’t the only one.  In a major coup at the time, 5-star wide receiver Cameron Colvin, a prep superstar at San Francisco area powerhouse De La Salle High School, selected Oregon over Michigan on live TV on ESPN.  Live television announcements were rare at the time, though televised commitment ceremonies are commonplace now.

“As soon as I put on an Oregon hat my phone started ringing,” said Colvin, laughing.  “It was the Michigan coaches calling, you could hear my phone over ESPN, they couldn’t understand why I would ever want to go to Oregon over Michigan because of their tradition.”

As years passed Agyeman, Colvin, Tuitele and the rest of the Oregon Ducks had some successes and failures as the 2007 Michigan rematch loomed on the distant horizon.  The 2006 Oregon season ended with a whimper in an embarrassing loss to BYU in the 2006 Las Vegas Bowl that had few predicting great things for the 2007 team.  But changes were afoot, a new offensive coordinator, Chip Kelly, was brought in from New Hampshire bringing with him a new variation of the high-tempo spread offense as of yet unseen in division 1 college football.  The Ducks were stacked with seniors, including quarterback Dennis Dixon and an amazing wide receiver corps and speedy defense.

The big rematch with Michigan awaited in week 2 of the 2007 season, but week 1 started with a hiccup for both teams.  Call it rust, first game jitters, adjusting to a new offense, but Oregon won their matchup at home vs. Houston though in unimpressive fashion, furthering the belief among many that for all the flash Oregon would be mid-tier at best that season.

Michigan meanwhile had a much bigger problem though, they were the joke of the college football world.  After being hyped all preseason as a national title contender with a roster of seniors that all collectively chose to forgo the NFL for a year to return to school to win it all, they lost in one of the most stunning upsets in college football history at home to 1-AA team Appalachian State on a last-second blocked field goal.

Michigan was embarrassed, App. State were media darlings, and everyone looked forward to seeing how Michigan would rebound with their next home game against Oregon.  Few gave Oregon much of a chance, most predicted a vengeance game with the Ducks getting stomped by a Michigan team looking to not only return the favor from the 2003 game, but redeem the reputation of Coach Lloyd Carr who suddenly had his job in question by a furious fan base.

“We were stunned just like everybody else that Michigan had lost to Appalachian State,” Kwame Agyeman recalls.  “But when we watched the game film we saw that App State was basically us, they ran the same kind of offense but we had far better athletes, and we thought we expose Michigan the same way App State had.  Our mentality was that we have to show up because they’re going to be mad, but let’s just throw some shots at them and see what happens.”

“We didn’t pay much attention to the media as they tried to talk about how badly Michigan was going to beat us,” said AJ Tuitele.  Our preparation that week was phenomenal, we had great senior leaders, coaches did a good job of getting us focused going into the big house.”

In the first game against Houston, Oregon had scored a lot of points, but appeared to be out of synch for much of it.  What had been off-target in week 1 suddenly came into perfect working order, much to the dismay of Michigan.  At the heart of the Oregon offense was a no-huddle high-tempo offense built around getting playmakers into open space, and did Oregon ever have playmakers.  Two of the best backs in the country were featured in Oregon’s backfield, a human bowling ball named Jonathan Stewart and a lightning quick greased pig scatback by the name of Jeremiah Johnson.  Oh, and Dixon was a threat with his legs and his arm on every play too if defenses keyed in on JJ and Stewart.

“Going against Oregon’s offense every day in practice really prepared us well,” said AJ Tuitele.  “Chip’s system was so fast.  Our offense was great that year, and once they got going on the same page learning the system it was scary how good it was.  Practicing everyday against Stewart and JJ going one on one made us so much better, if you can take down a guy like Jonathan Stewart in the open field at full speed in practice, then the games are easy.”

“Our practices would go so fast that once the games started it felt slow, the games felt more like a walkthrough for us because our practices were so much harder than our opponents,” said Agyeman.  “If you knew you could make plays against them in practice, we knew that we were better than the guys we would then be facing in games.  In Chip’s first season practice was really chaotic with the tempo while guys learned the system, but when they went through their growing pains with it afterward we saw just how lethal it could be.  It was a lot of fun seeing Chip come up with some new wrinkle and it would take a couple days for the defense to figure out a way to stop it.”

It was a mirror image of the 2003 game.  Oregon, with flash and panache, a 21st century program but unproven.  Michigan, a run-first Big-10 traditional program with all the pomp and prestige deserving of their name while featuring future NFL stars and a highly-touted running back, this time around senior Mike Hart.  Oregon undefeated, Michigan reeling from their loss but still ranked and out for blood seeking redemption with a shot at the Rose Bowl still within grasp.  Into this setting again came ABC and a national television audience to watch the carnage, what they got nobody expected.

A packed Big House with over 100,000 Michigan fans, and a small sliver of a couple thousand Oregon fans, packed the stands.

“I had no doubt Oregon would play well,” said Justin Andrews, having graduated after the 2005 season and watching now as a fan from Miami at the time as a high school football coach.  “I knew it was going to be competitive, even though they had lost to App State, but they’re still Michigan. Everyone was saying ‘Oh, I feel sorry for Oregon having to play them the next week.  I was the only Oregon fan within 100 miles, and everyone was talking crap about Michigan this and Michigan that, people knew the Oregon name but they hadn’t really sat down to watch Oregon play yet.  That Michigan game was the first time the east coast really watched an Oregon team play.  It was a damn shame App State beat us to it, because I wanted Oregon to be the ones to shut them down with their pompous attitude.”

Oregon came out confident, even taunting the Michigan faithful with a sledgehammer that Jeremiah Johnson used to pound the endzone before kickoff, a short-lived tradition at Oregon that had been started two years prior.  Cameras caught it, and the announcers noted it expecting it to be one more reason why the bloodbath would ensue.

Jeremiah Johnson (#24) taunts the crowd after striking the Michigan endzone with the Duck sledgehammer before the start of the game

 

“The hammer I remember,” said Agyeman, “JJ came out and hammered their field.  When you do that you better back it up, it was a moment like an afterschool fight, let’s take our first shot taking on the bully, it just got real.  It was a metaphor, the hammer showed we weren’t scared, we kicked the door down, we were here.”

Michigan got the ball to start the game, and immediately started grinding it out with Big-10 style football between the tackles, running with Mike Hart primarily behind tackle Jake Long, who would become the #1 overall NFL draft pick the following year.  Michigan was moving the chains, but then they tried to get cute, and an audible at the line by quarterback Chad Henne led to a deep play action pass that was intercepted by safety Matthew Harper.  It was all downhill from there for Michigan.

Oregon drove the field down to the goal line but were held to a field goal.  Michigan tried to continue grind it out between the tackles but Oregon’s defense stacked the box and got into the backfield shutting it down.  Just like in 2003, Michigan seemed unwilling to do anything other than play Michigan football, running right at the Oregon defense that held its ground and utilized speed to fly around the big & slow lumbering Michigan offensive line.

A punt pinned Oregon back on the 15 yard line, and Oregon would strike quickly.  On the first play from scrimmage wide receiver Brian Paysinger left his man in the dust sprinting down the sidelines to catch a perfectly thrown ball from Dennis Dixon for an 85 yard touchdown, making it look simple.

With Michigan still reeling Oregon quickly lined up and ran a two-point conversion to tight end Ed Dickson, which had the announcers laughing and marveling at the speed of things.  Still anticipating Michigan to steamroll Oregon though, they surmised that this was merely a fluke and wake up call, that Oregon had awakened the beast and were in trouble now.

Michigan put together a long drive slowly moving the chains grinding it out on the ground eventually leading to a touchdown 11-7.  Things got worse for Michigan, when backup RB Brandon Minor came in for Mike Hart and immediately fumbled, Ducks got the ball back and things seemed to be coming apart at the seams for the Wolverines.

“We could tell they were not prepared, they had size but we ran right past them,” said Kwame Agyeman.

The Big-10 style of play wasn’t working, within the Big-10 holiest grounds, the Big House.  Oregon drove the length of the field seemingly toying with Michigan, running a statue of liberty play that had Jonathan Stewart hurdling and knocking over defenders.

Oregon would score on a Stewart touchdown run, increasing the lead.  Oregon was supposed to be the finesse team, but the Ducks were playing power run football AND out-maneuvering Michigan, controlling the line of scrimmage and finding mismatches to attack through the air.  The game was slanting decidedly in Oregon’s favor, soon it would become flat-out embarrassing.

Oregon’s defense hounded Chad Henne and stuffed the gaps Mike Hart tried to attack, there was simply no ground to be gained through the run or pass.  Oregon’s defense knew exactly what Michigan was doing before they did, and compared to the speed at which they practiced every day going against Michigan was like having the game played in slow motion.

It was easy, simple, child’s play.  Oregon looked like a cat toying with a caught mouse, they could do anything against Michigan and it would work.

Oregon proved just that, pulling off the iconic play of the 2007 season on the next drive that became the highlight forever remembered from this game, and the footage that centered around the much-deserved Heisman trophy campaign surrounding Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon that would follow.

After driving the length of the field on several long runs, at the 9-yard line Oregon again appeared to run a statue of liberty play, one of the oldest plays in football but rarely if ever used today but iconic for Boise State’s use in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl.  When Michigan’s defense immediately all moved to the right to pursue Jonathan Stewart, Dennis Dixon casually strolled into the endzone like taking a nonchalant walk in the park, ball in hand.  The announcers laughed, the fans stood silent in awe, the Michigan players looked on in disgust, and Oregon fans and players were all smiles.

“I remember we had practiced that statue of liberty play and the defense stuffed it,” said Kwame Agyeman.  “A few reps later they did the fake statue of liberty with Dixon and it went for a 60 yard touchdown.  We had to laugh at it, it was so genius, but we knew it would work.  It was funny that in the game Chip chose to keep the same sequence, and it worked perfectly.”

Michigan entered desperation mode while still in the first half, while boos echoed down from the Michigan fans and signs began to appear in the stands that read ‘Anybody But Carr.’

Dixon and company struck again once again making Michigan look foolish, as another deep flawlessly dropped into the hands of wide receiver Derrick Jones in stride for an easy 61 yard touchdown.

The rout was on, and 100,000 fans couldn’t possibly be quieter, except for a sliver of green & yellow ones in the corner noticeably chanting ‘Lets Go Ducks!’ that could be heard on the broadcast.  The announcers recognized something special was happening here, the over 8 million watching on television could feel it too.  This was a complete dismantling of the most storied program in history, in their house.  It seemed almost blasphemous to suggest it, but it was clear that Oregon’s spread offense was the wave of the future, something that Michigan’s traditional ways could not compete with.

Another long touchdown pass came on a 45 yard connection from Dennis Dixon to Jaison Williams, like a game of catch in the backyard with a Nerf ball it looked like the Michigan defense wasn’t even on the field.

More turnovers followed, Henne was taking a pounding from Oregon’s relentless defense.  “The vibe on the sidelines was like sharks in the water, we sensed the blood and wanted to get the offense the ball as many times as possible,” Agyeman remembers.  “We didn’t just want to win, we wanted to destroy them.  By the end of the game it was almost a party atmosphere.”

Henne would not finish the game, too many big hits ended his day with an injury forcing freshman Ryan Mallett to come off the bench.  Despite Mallett’s cannon arm, it was too little too late.

Frustration set in on the Michigan sidelines.  Mike Hart refused to leave the game and yelled at the coaches, players on the Michigan sidelines got into arguments.  Greg Matthews after a play out of frustration tried to injure Oregon safety Matthew Harper with a ridiculous cheapshot to the knee that should have been grounds for an ejection.

“We could tell they were getting frustrated,” said Agyeman. “We always look for signs when teams begin to quit.  They started arguing with each other Matthews kicked at (Matthew) Harper’s knee, (Ryan) Mallett and (Jake) Long were arguing after plays.  Their gameplan was basic, they thought they were just going to outpower us, but our D-line played great and shut them down, their plan didn’t work and they lost composure very fast.”

Oregon LB AJ Tuitele (#34) makes a tackle during the 2007 Oregon-Michigan game

 

Oregon let off the gas in the 2nd half content to run out the clock, but the running game continued to punish the Michigan defense, highlighted by a series of wicked stiff-arms dished out by Jeremiah Johnson.

The final score would be Oregon 39-7, but with the Ducks stopped on a 4th goal and another fumble in the redzone it could have been far far worse.  The announcers and crowd and viewers knew it, this was a beatdown of epic proportions.  Michigan fans streamed out of the stadium early while Duck fans celebrated in jubilation, visibly and audibly noticeable during the broadcast.

 

“What stuck out to me was the fans,” Agyeman remembers.  “Their faces, the surprise, the silence of the stadium in the 2nd half.  It was the greatest being able to silence the Big House like that with about 60 friends and family from Illinois watching.  It gave us so much more confidence, the Michigan game told us that we could play with anybody.  It validated my decision to leave home to play for Oregon.  This is why I left, this is why I went there.  It opened people’s eyes that there was a new style of football being played, we weren’t just guys in crazy uniforms but real football players.  That game changed the perception, it ended the Midwest bias that the west coast was just USC and the little 9.”

Kwame Agyeman (#30) and Andiel Brown (#27) celebrate Oregon's victory over Michigan in the Big House. Photo courtesy: Chris Wilson

 

“We talked about it after the game about how it wasn’t as loud as we expected it to be,” said AJ Tuitele.  “It was awesome to celebrate with all the Oregon fans that flew cross-country to support us, it showed how great Oregon fans are home or away that they’re still with us.”

Oregon players celebrate with the Duck fans that made the trip to the Big House. Photo courtesy: Chris Wilson

 

For fans not in attendance watching on TV, like Justin Andrews back in Miami surrounded by stunned east coast SEC fans, it was a source of immense pride.  “You could tell the announcers were just waiting to give the game to Michigan, but it never happened.  They were just waiting for them to show their dominance, and instead Oregon dominated them with such style.  After that things changed, everybody started talking about Oregon even out east, that game turned a lot of people into Oregon fans.”

Not just around the country, but actually in the stands at the Big House as well…Kwame Agyeman remembers one particular converted fan that day.

“I remember at the end of the game we were heading back into the tunnel to the locker room and I see this upset little kid in a Michigan jersey.  Out of frustration he takes off the jersey, throws it on the ground, and flashes the Oregon ‘O’ sign with his hands to all of us like he was a Duck fan.”

Agyeman continued, “Guys were hugging afterward, it was all smiles.  It was such a sense of accomplishment, it confirmed to us that we were a special team, we put so much hard work into the offseason and first implemented the ‘Win The Day’ attitude and the conditioning we did, that game was confirmation of all of it.  We wanted to be elite, after the 2006 Vegas Bowl we were so low, but in the offseason we went on a trip and got a lot of things off our chest and it just changed everything.”

There was still a lot of season left to be played, but Michigan and Oregon were the talk of the nation, for all the wrong and right reasons respectively.  Suddenly there was nothing cooler than to be an Oregon Duck.  They had the uniforms, they had the facilities, they had the Nike connection, and they had the most fun team in the nation to watch.  High school kids around the country bought Oregon jerseys and put up Dennis Dixon posters on their walls dreaming of someday being the quarterback at Oregon, there was nothing better than being a Duck

“We knew we had done something special when we won that game, and our coaches reminded us of that,” said AJ Tuitele.  “But we still had a lot of football left in our season, one win doesn’t define our year, so they helped to focus us on the next task at hand.”

For Michigan and Oregon it would continue to be a year to remember.  Michigan after the Oregon loss would rebound to win 9 games in a row before losing to their traditional matchup to Ohio State and reach a berth in a bowl, but it wouldn’t be enough to save Lloyd Carr’s job.  The damage had been done, a fatal blow inflicted by Appalaichan State and Oregon and their crazy new spread offenses, as Lloyd Carr was fired after the season.  Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez from West Virginia who implemented a spread offense just like what Oregon ran.  In one game Oregon had beaten Michigan so badly that they abandoned 100+ years of tradition, in a panic trying to imitate Oregon in every way.

Oregon meanwhile would ascend the rankings reaching as high as #2 in the country, but a rash of injuries culminating in the tear of Dennis Dixon’s ACL ligament on national television would send the Ducks season crashing to the ground.  Dixon had played his way into the front-runner for the Heisman trophy, but it was not to be.  Oregon los the last three games of the season working with a team that was a mere shadow of its formidable self in September, though found redemption of its own with a 56-17 victory over South Florida in the Sun Bowl.

Still, the message was clear.  Oregon had emerged as not just a marketing gimmick, but a legit program knocking off the most prestigious program in the land, diminishing them to imitators, wishing they could be like Oregon.  Michigan’s attempts at a spread program would prove to be a dismal failure, and the program still is searching to return to their identity of a powerhouse traditional Big-10 style program.  Perhaps those days are done, Oregon proved that speed, at least for now, beats size.

Oregon finished 2nd in the Pac-10 the following year winning the Holiday Bowl in impressive fashion.  The next year they won the Pac-10 outright earning a trip to the Rose Bowl.  The next, they played in the national championship.  There was no longer a question that Oregon was for real, that they could compete with anybody in the country, and that there was nothing cooler than being a Duck.  They fit the mold across the board.  What had previously been a roster comprised largely of California players now was a team built on recruits from every corner of the country, all wanting to be Ducks having cheered on the team growing up as Oregon fans, many able to point directly at Oregon’s demolition of the Michigan program as the moment they decided they wanted to be a Duck.

The victory over Michigan was the moment that everything changed, when tradition and legacy took a backseat to innovation, and college football going forward would never be the same.

Print Friendly
Powered by