On this very night ten years ago, the Oregon Ducks traveled to Pullman, Washington to take on the #14 Washington State Cougars on a rainy night. Martin Stadium was packed, marking the first time an opponent other than Washington drew a full house since Washington State’s 1997 Rose Bowl Run. The Cougar faithful were hopeful for another conference crown, as Washington State controlled their own destiny as the only unbeaten team in the Pac-10, sitting at 7-0/4-0 in conference.
Oregon was coming off of a devastating home loss the previous week to Stanford, ending its 23-game home winning streak. At 6-1/3-1 in conference, Oregon remained in the conference title race if they were able to win out. A very confident Oregon team remained very focused and prepared to redeem itself and continue its run at a Pac-10 Title.
Former Wide Receiver Jason Willis recalls the intensity leading up to the game after coming off the heart-breaking loss. “We had a bitter taste from the Stanford game, and we knew that against the next opponent we were going to make a statement. We didn’t care who was in front of us, especially after losing our home field winning streak the week before. Bellotti was telling us it is not good that we lost, but we still have the bullseye on our back, as we could win out and still remain in the race for the conference title.”
The game featured two of the Pac-10’s leading quarterbacks between the stardom of Joey Harrington and Jason Gesser. However, from the start it was a game dominated on the ground by the tandem of Oregon’s Onterrio Smith and Maurice Morris. After Washington State’s first drive was nullified by penalties and a 12-yard Darrell Wright sack to force a 4th and 37; the Cougars were forced to punt, giving the Ducks great field position at the WSU 40. On the first run of the game, Morris ran to midfield for a first down. Oregon moved into scoring territory and appeared to be opening their first drive for a score as Jared Siegel lined up in field goal formation. Oregon, however, opted to fake the FG, knowing that they had to kick against the brisk swirling wind.
A back-and-forth battle began between the two teams, with the first quarter being mostly defensively dominated. Harrington and company soon began a terrific drive as tight end George Wrighster hurdled a WSU defender to midfield for a first down, and Morris carried to the WSU 30, but Oregon was forced to punt again having the wind in their face and unable to attempt a field goal. WSU and Oregon traded drives, both coming up empty as the defense-dominated first quarter ended with no scores allowed.
As the second quarter began, Maurice Morris (who had 76 first quarter yards) picked up where he left off. Morris began by rushing to midfield, then to the WSU 40. WSU’s tough defense pressured Harrington on a third down pass attempt to a wide-open Samie Parker, preventing a completion and forcing a punt. Incidentally, just as the previous year, WSU had to bring in backup Quarterback Matt Kegel following a blow to Jason Gesser (though contrary to the previous year when Gesser’s leg was broken, Gesser would later return to the game). Kegel was the first to make his presence felt offensively, as he threw Oregon for a spin on his first play in the game. A razzle-dazzle option pass from the receiver in motion was directed to a full-speed Kegel. Kegel made an acrobatic catch and sprinted down the sidelines for a gain of 60, from the WSU 20 to the Oregon 20 before being brought down by Wes Mallard. Oregon’s defense would hold from there to force a field goal attempt, which was good for the first points of the game. 3-0, Washington State.
As Oregon took the kickoff, they immediately began a responding drive of their own. Samie Parker caught a Harrington strike on the first play, breaking tackles and tip-toeing his way for a first down and a gain of 17. The very next play, Onterrio Smith came in to begin a career night with a run of 28 yards, running his way from the Oregon 37 down to the WSU 35. Oregon marched into the red zone on four Smith runs and several other plays.
Smith would then fight his way through defenders and force his way in the end zone to claim the lead with just over seven minutes remaining in the half. 7-3, Oregon, which would remain the score until halftime.
First half statistics and facts:
-No turnovers by either team were committed
-The Harrington/Gesser statistics were fairly even
-Maurice Morris had run for nearly 100 yards (96)
-Onterrio Smith rushed for 56 first-half yards (multiplying by five in second)
-The first half was the lowest scoring for either team all season
-Oregon’s dominance came mostly on the ground, outrushing WSU 174: 24
In the second half, Oregon would come out all fired up and would not be extinguished by the pouring rain. Onterrio Smith began his dominant game, as two penalties pinned Oregon inside their own five, and Oregon faced a 3rd and 17. Smith took the handoff, ran up the middle, made four tacklers miss, and ran for the first down at the 25 to bail Oregon out of a jam.
The drive continued with first down completions, including a terrific catch by Jason Willis at midfield, and more runs by Smith into WSU territory. From the WSU 41, Smith took the handoff from Harrington. Smith would run up the middle, break a tackle, and use his speed and aided blocks the rest of the way to race for the end zone for a 41 yard touchdown run. 14-3, Oregon.
Willis recalls the dominance of the running game and his contributions with the receiving corps. “He (Onterrio) talked to us receivers and he told us he’d run downfield and told us to block, ‘I’m going to break it open. When you can throw a block on the defenders in the secondary, I can take it to the house every time.’ ”
Washington State took the kickoff and went three-and-out deep in their own territory. Oregon picked up where they left off immediately upon receiving the ball back. Maurice Morris took the handoff on first down and ran 17 yards, but Harrington threw three unsuccessful passes and Oregon was forced to punt. Washington State appeared to have some momentum on their next series, but two terrific pass breakups by Keith Lewis and Steve Smith gave Oregon the ball back.
Oregon, run-happy all night, called on Harrington’s arm and Howry’s receiving abilities on the next play. Howry pump-faked, tricked his receiver, Harrington delivered the pass outside, and Howry eluded a tackler for a gain of 30 into Oregon territory. Two plays later, Morris broke up the middle and ran down the sidelines for what appeared to be a straight shot into the end zone. However, as Morris was running, he felt a non-contact hamstring injury and was slowed while still fighting for as many yards as possible before being taken down at the WSU 10. Morris would have to leave for the night with 19 carries for 138 yards, and would leave Onterrio Smith the rushing duties as the third quarter came to an end with Oregon up 14-3 and ready to add another.
Smith ran into the end zone, but a penalty pushed Oregon back, and Oregon was forced to settle for a Jared Siegel Field Goal. 17-3, Oregon. Washington State found a spark on their next possession, aided by a few Oregon penalties. WSU’s Dave Minnich ran down the sidelines to the Oregon 20, but didn’t have the breakaway speed and was downed by Mallard. A penalty put the ball at the Oregon 1, and Minnich finished the job from there by jumping over the pile to make it a one-score game. 17-10, Oregon.
Backed up deep in Oregon territory, Smith continued his dominance running all over the Pac-10’s top defense, cutting off WSU defenders and running all the way to the WSU 45. As Oregon appeared to be on the verge of another scoring drive, a controversial call gave WSU the ball. Keenan Howry appeared to be down when the ball came loose, but plays were not reviewed in NCAA Football at the time.
Oregon’s defense, however, would prevent anything big by WSU, forcing another punt with just under seven minutes to play. The high-flying offense of Oregon immediately began to take advantage of their opportunity and make the most of Smith’s dominant evening. From the Oregon 20, it only took Smith two runs to spark another big play. Smith ran from the Oregon 27 on 2nd and 3 through the line for much more than three yards, racing 73 yards untouched all the way to the endzone. Not only would Smith score to give Oregon a 14-point advantage, but Smith would break Ahmad Rashad’s 249 yard single game record to set a a new game high for the most yards by an Oregon rusher. 24-10, Oregon.
It then appeared Oregon had the game under control. Washington State, however, was a good quality team and would answer right back on their next series. On the very first play from scrimmage, Gesser found a wide open receiver, Mike Bush, downfield for a gain of 62 yards, until being brought down at the Oregon 8. Only a few plays later, WSU tight end Jerome Riley took the pass, spinning off three tacklers to make his way into the end zone on his feet and pull WSU within a score. 24-17, Oregon with five minutes to play, making way for a very exciting and dramatic finish many expected all along. In only four plays and one minute, WSU had driven 70 yards for the score, and appeared ready to pull off a comeback.
Onterrio Smith continued to add to his record night with one carry after another to run the clock and gain a total of 285 yards. Oregon milked the clock under two minutes, but WSU would stop Smith on third down and force a punt with 90 seconds to play.
The previous year, Oregon and WSU went into overtime in the Palouse tied at 24. Many expected a repeat as WSU was fired up and ready to strike. On the first play, Gesser found a wide-open receiver who made a terrific juggling catch and fought to stay on his feet before running out of bounds. Gesser then led WSU to midfield and out of bounds to stop the clock at 40 seconds; then to the 25 with 20 seconds. WSU made way for a very dramatic finish, as Gesser hit Mike Bush at the 8 yard-line. The ball was spiked on first down to give WSU three shots with 11 seconds remaining. On second down, the 5’8″ Rashad Bauman made a terrific pass-breakup against the 6’6″ Mike Bush, as Bauman continued his renowned abilities to defend even the tallest receivers. On third down, the ball was thrown right at Middle Linebacker David Morretti, who nearly intercepted but could not hold onto the wet ball. That would bring up fourth and goal, with two seconds left.
This was definitely it, the clock would run out and it was fourth down regardless, meaning WSU would have to score the game-tying touchdown or it was Oregon’s victory. Gesser rolled back to pass and heaved the ball to the corner of the end zone for an open receiver, Mike Bush. Linebacker Wes Mallard guarded Bush, and without looking back just reached in and knocked the ball to the wet turf. WSU argued for pass interference, but no flags were down, and the celebration was on as the Ducks knocked off the fifth unbeaten team of the day to give the Ducks the win.
Jason Willis recalls the dramatic finish: “on the sidelines, we were almost holding hands, we knew it would come down to the last play. Wes’s back was turned, but he put his arms in at the right time. It was a quick celebration, we were so cold we just wanted to get out of there.”
With the win, Oregon was tied for first place in the Pac-10 standings. The Ducks completed an impressive victory against #14 Washington State, proving the true heart of the team, not willing to crumble following a devastating loss, continuing the last-minute heroics that had become the team’s calling card.
Onterrio Smith was awarded the game’s most valuable player, rushing for a school-record 285 yards. Maurice Morris also had over 100 yards (138) to mark the first time since the 1994 California game two Oregon players had gone over 100 yards in the same game. Oregon would stay strong from then on out, and appeared ready to continue its run for the conference title. Final Score: Oregon 24, Washington State 17.