The game is nearing the end of the opening quarter Saturday when my old friend I.C. Green begins whispering to me.
In Autzen Stadium.
Oregon is leading Washington State 8-0 thanks to a blocked punt returned for a touchdown by Boseko Lokombo — and is on its way to a 43-28 win.
But the No. 7-ranked Ducks are playing as they would for most of the game: A bit lackadaisical.
The crowd isn’t doing much better.
“Told you this place isn’t as loud and crazy as it used to be,” says I.C. quietly.
I look around from our seats above the east end zone and nod. It is pretty subdued, at least by Autzen standards.
“I guess that’s what happens when you win so much,” I offer up meekly.
“Hogwash,” I.C. responds. And this time it isn’t a whisper. “This place should be rocking right now! This is Pac-12 football! We have a league title and maybe even a national title at stake. I don’t care if it’s the Cougs.”
“This is Autzen!”
It’s been that kind of season for I.C., who attended the first game ever at Autzen against Colorado in 1967 and has been traipsing back ever since. He’s happy the Ducks have won 17 consecutive league games and have become a national power but believes the team has yet to reach last year’s level of intensity and excellence. What really gets under his skin, though, is what’s been seen and heard from the stands.
It all began with the Nevada game, when the noise in Autzen was about as annoying as an electric lawnmower buzzing from the neighbor’s yard. The crowd’s performance fell another notch for Missouri State, but picked up a bit for California. It wasn’t until the night game against Arizona State that the decibel levels met I.C.’s standards.
And now this up-and-down performance — both off and on the field — that is the Washington State game.
“It used to be that Autzen was loud every snap the other team had the ball,” says I.C., as he eyes the Cougars marching, down just 8-3. “Now, it just seems to happen when they feel threatened, like when things aren’t going the way they expect.”
For the first time all game, the Ducks fans get antsy — and noisy enough that whispers won’t work anymore.
“This is a good response. I can live with it. Let’s go Ducks!”
I.C. begins howling.
Almost on cue, with WSU facing 3-and-7 from the Oregon 21, Duck safety Eddie Pleasant picks off a Marshall Lobbestael pass. The fans rise to their feet.
Moments later, Darron Thomas hits Lavasier Tuinei on a 55-yard touchdown pass to extend Oregon’s lead to 15-3. After the Cougars miss a chip-shot field goal, the Ducks are on the march again behind the running of Kenjon Barner. But WSU’s Damante Horton intercepts Thomas and returns it 76 yards for a TD.
“At least all those people who headed to the parking lot early for some imbibing didn’t see that,” I.C. says. “The Ducks are playing like they’re half asleep. Ragged. Sloppy. Uninspired. I hope Chip Kelly lays into them in the locker room. Seems like LaMichael is tentative.”
With halftime on hand, I go and grab us a couple dogs — all the trimmings for I.C. Green. He wolfs his down faster than it takes the Harley to do its pregame run over the artificial turf. And then he begins reminiscing.
“You know I can remember when the sound was so deafening in here that you literally couldn’t speak to the person next to you,” I.C. says. “Against UCLA back in 1990, when Bill Musgrave led a great comeback to get us in the Freedom Bowl, the fans took over the stadium and willed that team to victory. The Duck players said later you could read defeat in the Bruin players’ eyes.
“Heck, Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said this was the loudest stadium he’d ever been in when he came here in 2003. I was right in this same spot. The crowd never sat down. Not once. I couldn’t speak for a week afterwards. My voice was gone.”
So much for the memories. When fans fail to return promptly for the start of the third quarter Saturday, I.C. can’t hold back.
“Where are they?” he bellows, staring intently at the covered south stands.
What was ready and present — maybe 40,000 of the 59,126 who had tickets — goes bonkers three plays later when freshman De’Anthony Thomas takes a pass from redshirt freshman QB Bryan Bennett, puts on the jets and jukes his way for a 45-yard score.
“De’Anthony is unbelievable. Pure speed. Pure moves. Did you hear the crowd gasp when he did his weave? But it’s good to see LaMichael back at it. We’re gonna need him for UW and Stanford and USC. I wonder why Bennett is in there? Did Darron Thomas get hurt again?”
I pick up the specks and spot Thomas standing on the sidelines.
The Cougars promptly embark on another drive that eats up clock and results in more points, this time a field goal to cut the lead to 22-13. Oregon responds with a march of its own, culminating in a Bennett to Tuinei strike for a score. WSU then cuts the cap to 29-20 when Lobbestael hits Jared Karstetter for a 24-yard TD pass.
It isn’t until De’Anthony Thomas returns the ensuing kickoff 92 yards to paydirt that victory finally seems at hand.
Thunderous applause bounces about the place. Then dies down. The Oregon lead stands at 36-20.
“That’s more like it,” I.C. says, looking around at the sea of mostly yellow. “Now let’s keep it up.”
But not on this day.
When Barner stretches the lead to 43-20 on a nifty run early in the fourth quarter, the fans begin filing out.
“Come on Ducks, let’s finish this off. I want to be home by 4,” shouts a woman behind us.
I.C. elbows me a good hard one in the ribs.
For a diehard Duck, it is nearly too much to take.
“The way I figure it, this is gonna cost the Ducks eventually,” I.C. says. “Keep doing this and eventually it’ll become the new standard. Then when we find ourselves in a dogfight with some team and we need the crowd to create false-starts and get under their skin, the tank will be empty. It’s just like Chip says, ‘You play like you practice.’ If you can’t stretch out those vocal cords and stand up and let it loose all the time, how you gonna do it when we really need it?”
I remind I.C. that it’s hard to stay engaged when a team develops a reputation of routinely scoring in the 40s and 50s and winning with ease, as has become the custom since Kelly took the helms of the program.
I offer up the idea that winning breeds complacency.
I suggest that in the not-too distant past, fans realized the Ducks needed that little extra. Now, perhaps not so much so.
“I hear ya. But you know what?” he says.
“What?” I reply.
“This is Aut-zen,” I.C. Green barks, emphasizing each syllable with equal force. “This ain’t no Husky Stadium. Or Stanford. This is Aut-zen. We built our reputation on loud and intimidating. You think Packer fans sit on their little be-hinds when Green Bay builds a lead? Or Red Sox fans?”
“But I get your point. I know the Cougs aren’t world-beaters. Don’t tell anyone, but I kinda of root for them, kinda feel sorry for them. How’d you like it if people said you ‘Cooged it’ when you blew a lead?”
A few minutes later, as we, too, saunter out of Autzen under overcast skies, a slight cheer emanates from a group of tailgaters having a good time on the far east end of the parking lot, in the vicinity of where the new soccer complex is being built.
“I want to head over that way,” I.C. says. “Noise. Exuberance. Sounds like my type of people.”
A wry smile crosses his face.
“A win is a win,” he says. “Sometimes you play down to your opponent. You can’t blast the joint every time. Heck, I still can speak. You can make out my words. So I wasn’t at the top of my game, not by a long shot.
“I’ll be back for USC. That should be a wild one. I have a hunch everyone is gonna be up for those Trojans. Gonna lose my voice for a week. Gonna be Autzen-worthy.”