It was one of those days where by the end the masses can do little more than shrug and lament, “what else could possibly happen?” A game where the improbable and unfathomable becomes commonplace, where those who walked out early would regret it for a lifetime. A game that would be talked about for years to come, and for those who witnessed it or were lucky enough to play in it would wear their participation as a badge of honor.
The bizarre, the unlikely, the confusing and the downright wacky; one day in 2000 an unassuming game between Oregon and Arizona State exhibited everything imaginable that can take place on a football field. Through multiple fluke plays, odd decisions, a little luck, and an undying spirit, somehow Oregon would find a way to win in a game that has come to be known as “The Miracle in the Desert.”
On a personal level, it was one of the few games I was able to attend during the 2000 season, sitting in the endzone with a friend from Phoenix, an ASU fan. We had hoped for a good game to cheer on our collective teams, instead what we witnessed would become the stuff of legend, a story we would re-tell often for years to come, one that regardless of the victor we were thankful to have been able to witness it.
The big game on the slate October 28, 2000 was the matchup between #1 Nebraska and #3 Oklahoma, but by the end of the day the upset of the top-ranked team would take a backseat to the improbable events that occurred in Tempe, AZ.
There was much talk about the up-and-coming 6-1 Oregon Ducks, ranked #7 in the country, tying the highest ranking in school history (1964), taking on the 5-2 Arizona State Sun Devils. Media and fans were still abuzz about Oregon’s victory the previous week at home vs. Arizona, as much for the hard-fought 14-10 win as for the huge hit made by Oregon linebacker Wesly Mallard that shattered the jaw of Arizona cornerback Michael Jolivette.
Arizona State was still trying to find a proper replacement at runningback for superstar J.R. Redmond, who was in his first season in the NFL, but still featured a lethal starting lineup of multiple future NFL players like Todd Heap, Levi Jones, Shaun McDonald, Terrell Suggs, and the leading tackler in the Pac-10, linebacker Adam Archuleta. The Sun Devils were led by a former Duck, Head Coach Bruce Snyder, who always seemed to give his former team fits any time they played.
“My freshman year they blew us out, 52-31” Jason Nikolao remembers, a senior starting defensive tackle in 2000, now retired from football living in Tennessee. “Next year we beat them badly, my junior year we beat them on a last-minute touchdown, but ASU always seemed to play us so tough. They always wanted to run us into the ground.”
Oregon was confident coming into the game, boasting the 10th ranked defense in the country, #1 in nearly every defensive category across the board in the Pac-10 conference. Add to it that Arizona State was starting a walk-on runningback, a pool man from the Phoenix area named Tom Pace, and the Ducks felt they could shut down ASU’s run game and force them to be one-dimensional. The events that transpired would drastically contrast Oregon’s expectations, yet somehow through intense adversity the Ducks would find a way to persevere.
Just arriving proved difficult, as thunderstorms the night before the game in Phoenix delayed Oregon’s charter flight.
“We were stuck on the runway for two hours, we watched an entire movie while just sitting there waiting to takeoff, then we deboarded and hung out in the terminal for a while until the weather cleared,” said Jason Willis, a redshirt sophomore safety-turned-wide receiver for Oregon, who was getting his first career start in the game vs. ASU due to a hip injury to Keenan Howry. “It was a long day, we had school and meetings and then on the plane, we didn’t end up leaving Eugene until almost 10pm. When we touched down in Phoenix it was well after midnight, Coach (Mike Bellotti) said all meetings were canceled and to get some sleep, since it was a day game (12:30 kickoff) the next day we had to be up by 7:30 so it was straight to bed for essentially a power nap.”
For a team that emphasized routine down to the tiniest detail doing everything the same way for game preparation every week, the delayed flight wreaked havoc.
“We weren’t able to go through the normal routine, missed our morning meetings,” Nikolao recalls. “It absolutely had an effect on the way the team played early on. When you’re used to doing things a certain way, keeping things routine, we had it timed down to a T from two days out leading up to kickoff. Meetings at this time, meals at this time, sleep at this time, it was clockwork. But when the flight was delayed suddenly our game prep was completely different.”
“You could tell everybody wasn’t there,” said Willis. “The flight took our whole flow out, our chemistry was off, everybody was so out of it. It showed, it was a factor, we were just out of it mentally early on. It was hot that day too, so (Wide Receivers) Coach (Chris) Peterson—now head coach at Boise State—had us shorten up our pregame stuff to save energy. The defense got fatigued, on offense we had a lot of mental breakdowns, we could never get going, especially early.”
The crowd packed into Sun Devil Stadium seeking any respite from the heat bearing down in the valley of the sun. The heat and sunshine would cause problems for the players all day, the combination of lost sleep, added fatigue, and bright sunlight making life difficult for receivers to keep track of the ball.
Oregon misfired early, picking up a few yards but it was clear things were out of sync for the Ducks.
“It was my first time starting, replacing Keenan (Howry),” said Jason Willis. “Joey had such a strong connection with Keenan, it took some time for him to adjust to Marshaun (Tucker) and I being the starters out there instead of his usual receivers.”
“The previous week I was blocking and took a knee to the hip,” said Keenan Howry. “I had a bad hip pointer, I didn’t practice all week, so with Jason having a good week of practice they decided to start him. I didn’t play the whole first quarter, they gave me a shot to numb it up and eventually we decided I’d give it a go. I was able to play with only a slight hitch in my giddy-up.”
Things would turn worse in the opening minutes of the game, as Jason Nikolao would suffer a MCL sprain, removing one of the team’s key senior leaders from the lineup for the rest of the day.
“It was a freak thing how I got hurt, after the play the offensive lineman threw a guy on my knee. I felt a pop, heard a pop, knew it was bad,” Nikolao recalls. “I tried to lie my way back onto the field, but it didn’t work. It was tough to spend all week preparing to play and then only get one series and have to sit out the rest of the game. Just sitting there knowing I couldn’t play, my heart was broken. Tears were streaming down, the fans were laughing at me letting me have it. I went in before halftime and changed clothes and for the rest of the day I was the biggest cheerleader out there. All I could do was encourage the guys, and for a game like that to occur where I couldn’t contribute, it really bothered me, I was so frustrated. The way ASU was playing I kept thinking ‘if only I could be out there maybe I could have made that play,’ seeing how tired they were it killed me not being able to contribute. Sometimes injuries happen, freak stuff. But it can eat at you, destroy you emotionally, it’s such a rollercoaster ride being forced to watch your team struggle knowing you should be playing.”
If being unable to participate is mentally and emotionally draining, to have to stand by watching one of the most epic struggles in Oregon history occur while being unable to participate would be beyond measure. Nikolao’s replacement along the line was Zach Freiter, a blue collar beast who immediately made his presence felt, sacking ASU quarterback Jeff Krohn on his second snap on the field.
With the Oregon offense struggling, Arizona State would strike first. On 3rd & 16 Jeff Krohn rolled right under duress, dumping the pass off to runningback Tom Pace who found himself in the open field and sprinted for a 70-yard touchdown.
The stunned Oregon defense couldn’t believe they gave up a touchdown like that, and to a walk-on. The defense knew very little about Tom Pace aside from him being an undersized walk-on, but the Ducks were in for a big surprise, as were the ASU fan base who also knew little of Pace prior to the game, as questions of “who was that? Tom who? Who is Tom Pace?” echoed throughout the stands following the big play.
“I was a walk-on too, so I know the mentality,” said Jason Willis of the trouble Oregon had in stopping the diminutive walk-on unknown runningback for ASU, Tom Pace. “Walk-ons and undrafted free agents in the pros will always be the hardest workers on a team, because they have to do so much more to prove themselves. Tom Pace may have been a walk-on, but just would not go down, the defensive guys said he was slippery. Pace had a lot of long runs that day, there really weren’t a lot of long drives by either team, just one big play after another.”
Oregon responded, finally finding some rhythm behind the hard-running of tailback Maurice Morris, who capped a drive with a 17-yard touchdown run. The score/immediate response back-and-forth action would become the theme for the day.
Arizona State put together a long drive that ended with a 28 yard touchdown pass to Donny O’Neal, to retake the lead 14-7. Two very good defenses seemed to be no-shows, having little response for the two offenses. While Oregon had started slow, there was a feeling in the air that it could quickly turn into a shootout.
Team leader Joey Harrington, in his second year as starter, was more vocal than usual roaming the sidelines, perhaps sensing the fatigue in the team due to the heat, late arrival, and shock of ASU’s ability to move the ball on the ground with a no-name walk-on.
“Joey sat us all down and said ‘let’s do this one play at a time, I know it’s hot and we’re tired,’” Jason Willis remembers. “Once we started going we knew it was going to be a shootout, we just had to re-focus.”
Yet Harrington seemed to be the one struggling most of all the Oregon players. After one quarter, Harrington was 4/11 for 40 yards, while for ASU Jeff Krohn had already thrown for 178 yards and two TDs.
Into the 2nd quarter Oregon still wasn’t in sync, but ASU was starting to gouge the Duck defense. With Oregon pinned back on the 1 yard line, ASU linebacker Adam Archuleta blitzed and hit Joey Harrington in the endzone causing a fumble recovered by ASU for a touchdown. It appeared that Harrington’s arm was clearly going forward which should have been ruled an incomplete pass, but this was before the day of instant replay so the bad call stood, ASU now led 21-7 with Oregon appearing to be going nowhere.
ASU forced a punt and got the ball back and were driving for yet another score, but a fumbled handoff the result of Krohn’s foot being stepped on by a lineman gave Oregon a slight respite.
With time ticking down to halftime, Oregon’s passing game finally came alive. On a 2nd and 13 from the 26 yard line Harrington fired his first accurate downfield pass of the day, finding Keenan Howry for a touchdown. It was questioned how much Howry could play if at all due to the hip injury, and if it would affect his ability to contribute, but with the Ducks struggling Howry knew he had to fight through the pain to help out the team.
“It was still painful for me to move, but after they numbed it up I was able to go out there and move and run, with just a little limp,” said Howry. “I was still able to give it my all.”
Feeding off the energy of the offense finally starting to click, the Oregon defense started showing signs of life as well. Oregon linebacker Matt Smith was able to eventually sack the elusive Jeff Krohn forcing a punt, and Oregon would quickly capitalize.
For as bad as Joey Harrington had looked in the first quarter, Harrington now appeared to have finally shrugged off the rust from the change in routine, firing passes downfield with lethal precision despite taking big hits after almost every throw. A 29-yard catch by Marshaun Tucker set up Oregon near the goal line with less than a minute before halftime, which was finished off by Tucker with a 5-yard touchdown catch.
ASU had dominated the total yardage, and Tom Pace was out-rushing the powerful Maurice Morris on the ground, but Harrington was getting into a groove, which spelled trouble for the Sun Devils. The Ducks had tied it up at 21-21 before the half, and Head Coach Mike Bellotti was proud of the way his team had battled back.
At the half each team had turned the ball over twice, resulting in 7 points each. Neither team had found much success on 3rd downs or sustaining drives, but the hard running of Tom Pace and the big play ability of Jeff Krohn clearly had the momentum on Arizona State’s side. In the 2nd half ASU continued where they left off, driving the field with huge gashing runs by Tom Pace and helped with an incredible one-handed catch by tight end Todd Heap.
Finding a crease, the pool man Tom Pace would again break off a big run, scoring on a 36-yarder to again give ASU the lead 28-21.
But Oregon would not give up. In spite of the pain, WR Keenan Howry gutted it out continuing to play, and mere seconds later Howry found a gap behind the coverage as Harrington lofted a perfect pass to him for a 66-yard touchdown, again tying the score, now 28-28. The fatigue and injuries were both racking up, as ASU was exploiting the depleted Oregon defensive line attacking the spot vacated by Nikolao, while the Harrington to Howry combo was a direct response to a knee injury suffered by starting ASU cornerback Kenny Williams following the Marshaun Tucker touchdown in the first half. Even with the bad hip, Williams’ replacement was simply no match for the hobbled Howry.
“That was something Marshaun and I worked on all season,” Howry remembers. “We knew that nobody could guard us, and if teams did a double press on us we’d run a scissor and one of us would be open. Joey lofted a perfect pass and I just ran as fast as I could.”
But it wasn’t all good news for Oregon. They were matching ASU tit for tat, but the running game was almost non-existent, as Maurice Morris suffered bruised ribs that had him wheezing on the sidelines unable to play. Allan Amundson stepped into the role, but Oregon all but abandoned the run game. It didn’t matter much though, as Harrington after starting so bad was in a zone like teammates had never witnessed before. Harrington would stand in the pocket unafraid of the relentless pressure administered by Archuleta and Terrell Suggs, taking huge blow after blow and delivering the ball downfield with pinpoint precision.
The sun was making life difficult for receivers to see the ball, but with the way their leader was delivering it nobody wanted to let him down. On the sidelines, Harrington was as fiery as he had ever been seen, screaming like a mad man pushing his teammates demanding more effort, to keep fighting, to not give up.
In the 4th quarter ASU would continue the onslaught, as a blown coverage in the secondary with ASU pinned deep resulted in an easy 91-yard touchdown pass from Krohn to Richard Williams, giving ASU a two-touchdown lead. Oregon kept answering, but couldn’t keep going blow-for-blow unless the #1 ranked defense in the Pac-10 conference could muster some way to stop ASU.
Joey had no quit on this day. Knowing a response was needed to give the Oregon defense a chance to rest, Harrington led a methodical drive with accurate downfield passes to Keenan Howry and tight end LaCorey Collins to move the chains.
Oregon was in all-pass mode, and why not with the way Harrington was slinging the ball, but with Morris still hurt the Ducks caught ASU off-guard with a run by Allan Amundson that set up the Ducks near the goal line.
Harrington would quickly finish off the drive, once again finding Marshaun Tucker for a touchdown. It was Harrington’s fourth touchdown pass of the game, now well over 300 yards, he was in a zone, as if in a trance, that mindset where everything is working.
He had already earned the nickname “Captain Comeback” for his last-minute heroics, but on this day the unstoppable late game focus that led Harrington to last minute victories in the past had been with him since the 2nd quarter, nobody had seen Harrington play like this before consistently throughout an entire game.
“First and foremost it requires some luck, but luck breeds confidence,” said Joey Harrington, in an interview last year with Fishduck.com writer Brian Libby. “In games we would get a couple things and they would build on each other. I wouldn’t walk into that situation and automatically have that confidence, it was something that we had over time…we’d get a couple breaks along the way, which made us think, ‘You know what? We can do it!” You’re not worried about forcing the issue, or having to make the play, because you know it’s going to happen. I would be scared to death, but you’d never get me to admit it. Part of playing that role, part of being the quarterback, is convincing the ten other guys that you know what’s going on, even if you have no clue. If they don’t look at you and see complete confidence, they will doubt themselves, the only way to get anything done is for them to believe in you.”
Down a touchdown 42-35 with time now the enemy of the Oregon Ducks, Arizona State got the ball back and went right back to attacking Oregon running up the gut where Nikolao would have been. A minute after Oregon’s touchdown, ASU administered a back-breaker, a 60 yard touchdown run by freshman runningback Mike Williams to again make it a two touchdown deficit, 49-35. With six minutes left to play and the defense coming up with no answer to stop the ASU offense, the task seemed overwhelming. Yet Harrington would not cave, and more heroics were yet to come…
The Ducks would not go away quietly, and Harrington’s arm could not be stopped. Short passes kept the chains moving for Oregon’s response drive, but on 4th & 1 the Ducks took a chance, throwing deep to Marshaun Tucker who beat the cornerback playing close in run support, burning the defense for a 31-yard touchdown, Tucker’s third TD catch of the game, Harrington’s 5th touchdown pass on the day.
Still down a touchdown, Oregon’s defense needed to come up with a stop. Arizona State had effectively run the ball all game long, and all the Sun Devils now had to do was burn off the clock. Yet the Devils seemed unwilling to go the smart route, after the way the series between the two teams had been so bitterly fought the past few years they wanted to show their dominance over the highly-ranked Oregon Ducks. Over a thousand yards of total offense had been racked up between the two teams, ASU getting the better of it with over 600 yards tallied, and with under 3-minutes to go it seemed likely that they could exact their will upon the exhausted Oregon defense once again…but Bruce Snyder dialed up something different.
In an odd moment, on 2nd down Arizona State chose to pass, but the throw from Krohn was errant resulting in an incompletion, stopping the clock.
The crowd booed, ASU fans perplexed over the gift that had just been given to the Ducks. A chant of “Fiiiii-iiiire Snyyyyyy-ddderrr” started up in the ASU student section, and my friend and I laughed watching the ASU players turning around yelling at the students to shut up. The students had been randomly tossing tortillas in Snyder’s general direction for much of the 2nd half. One student threw a grapefruit that pegged Snyder in the back of the head.
On 3rd down, a Tom Pace run was stuffed. Just outside of field goal range, rather than punt to pin the Ducks deep Arizona State made an odd choice, choosing to throw deep, a pass that was tipped away by cornerback Steve Smith again preserving valuable seconds for Oregon.
“When ASU decided to pass when they could have run out the clock, we thought it was disrespectful,” said Jason Willis. “But at the same time the clock was our biggest enemy, so it was good for us. It was amazing to us that they would be that arrogant.”
“I couldn’t believe that ASU did that,” said Jason Nikolao. “ASU messed up bad, the guys were going crazy when they did that, we couldn’t believe their arrogance in trying to pass in that situation, we took it personal that they would do that. They had the game won, all they had to do was sit on it. Some of the decisions they made down the stretch we thought were disrespectful, they could have run out the clock and won the game but instead they tried to still move the ball. But we also thought any time you want to disrespect us again that’s fine, you’ll make a mistake and we’ll capitalize.”
Harrington and company would immediately make ASU pay for their mistake. On 2nd down after the change of possession Harrington would find tight end Justin Peelle. Splitting the safeties, Peelle made a great catch looking back at the sun and rumbled down the field for a 59-yard gain all the way to the 9-yard line.
“That was a great catch by Justin, for much of the quarter we could only throw to the sidelines where the sun wasn’t a factor, it was blinding us, we couldn’t see the ball coming towards us,” Jason Willis remembers.
Set up within scoring range to send the game to overtime, the crowd was going nuts. Sitting in the endzone where Oregon was driving with the teams right in front of us, my friend was practically punching me repeatedly out of anxiety and frustration wondering how it was possible that ASU hadn’t closed this game out already. I had no response, I was as stunned as he was, as was everyone else inside the stadium or watching on television.
An Allan Amundson run moved the ball to the 4 yard line, but a momentary lapse of composure resulted in a false start penalty pushing Oregon back to the 9. An incomplete pass set up 3rd down. With a little over a minute left, Harrington fired a laser to Justin Peelle, hitting him in the chest as he fell to the ground in the endzone for the apparent game-tying touchdown, but Peelle couldn’t hang onto the rocket ball, letting it hit the ground.
Oregon was down to its last chance. The game rested on one more play. My friend and I stood silently, too overcome with anxiety to speak or cheer, we could only watch, our hearts beating out of our chests. I couldn’t imagine the pressure that the players must have been feeling, one play would make or break the entire season for either team.
“We drove the length of the field with whatever it was, a minute and a half or two minutes left,” said Harrington. “I threw Justin (Peelle) a little stick route from the 6-yard line going in. I was expecting to get single coverage on the backside receiver, but they played a cover-two, which dictated that I go to Justin. He ran a great route and got open and I put the ball there. But as he turned, the linebacker clipped his back heel, and Justin stumbled just enough where he didn’t have enough power to get to the goal line. The safety met him at the one. We were walking off the field and I’m thinking, ‘How did that just happen? We just lost the game.’ All that ranting and raving on the sidelines, and we were going to lose.”
“When we got stopped, it was a feeling of frustration,” said Howry. “It was 4th down and all or nothing, Justin was the only one who had the chance to get into the endzone and came up a little short. Everyone was frustrated, we had an opportunity to tie it up and we failed.”
ASU had scored relentlessly and racked up huge yardage all game. Oregon had responded time and again to the ASU onslaught, everyone assumed Captain Comeback would find a way to win, he always did. But the Ducks had failed. For a game that had seen over a thousand yards of offense, the Ducks had come up a foot short. With a minute left in the game, all ASU had to do was run a QB sneak or two and run out the clock.
My friend began pulling on my shirt for us to leave. “C’mon dude, the game’s over!” he said again and again wanting to beat the crowd out of the stadium and get some food down on Mill Ave. He had friends in the student section he wanted to meet up with, but I was stubborn. “I’ve sat through enough Oregon games to know you NEVER leave a Duck game until the clock hits zeroes,” I emphatically responded, refusing to leave.
On the sidelines the Oregon bench looked devastated. They had fought so hard, overcome so much, and had lost by a foot…The Ducks were the team that always came through in the clutch, how could they lose by that little?
Tom Pace was on the sidelines nursing a shoulder injury, so it was freshman runningback Mike Williams in the backfield behind Jeff Krohn. Rather than run a simple QB sneak to burn off the clock, Krohn handed it off to Williams for a small gain. The clock ticked down, the stands were quickly being vacated, my friend kept tugging at my shirt to get me to leave while I stubbornly held out hope for a miracle.
A miracle is exactly what happened.
Another short run set up 3rd & 5, plenty of room to simply kneel down and let the clock expire. ASU students were in full throat with the standard antagonistic ‘Over-rated!’ chant while the teams lined up to go through the motions for the final snap of the game.
Rather than kneel on the ball, ASU again showed their arrogance, their want to rub it in against the Ducks. Krohn handed it off to Williams again, who found a seam and ran for a first down, but rather than fall to the ground to end it when he was wrapped up by linebacker Matt Smith, Williams chose to keep churning the legs and left the ball exposed. Linebacker Michael Callier struck Williams from behind, knocking the ball loose, and cornerback Jermaine Hanspard fell on the fumble.
My friend let go of my shirt finally and slumped in his seat, stunned. I was speechless. The crowd that had rapidly been vacating the stands stopped in the aisles to turn and look. The Oregon sidelines erupted. That just doesn’t happen in a game, those types of miracles are often requested, never answered.
“The game was over,” Howry remembers. “That’s why we do all the preparation in practice, to know the situation. That’s the difference between high school and college, having that freshman back in he didn’t know any better but to do what he’d done in high school keep on churning the legs rather than go down, he’s never gone through that situation before, he may make a mistake. He did, and we made them pay for it.”
Oregon’s offense sprinted onto the field, and in one play made ASU pay for their greed. Harrington fired a ball towards Justin Peelle in the corner of the endzone staring directly back at the blinding sun, who caught it and got a foot down for a touchdown. Through the miracle fumble, Oregon had tied the game 49-49 with only seconds left on the clock. Oregon had lost, but thanks to ASU bravado, Oregon had been given another chance.
“We thought it was karma, if they’re going to try to run the score up and embarrass us, the fumble was karma,” said Jason Willis. “I’ve never seen the eyes of people in the huddle so big when we got the play-call in, but the focus was intense. We knew somebody upstairs liked us that day, we’d been given a second life and were going to take advantage. Joey threw the ball to Peelle and he caught it with the sun in his eyes, Justin said he barely saw the ball.”
The touchdown was the sixth of the game for Joey Harrington, tying an Oregon school record set six years prior by Danny O’Neil vs. Stanford in 1994. This record has only been matched once since, by Darron Thomas a few weeks ago vs. Nevada.
While Arizona State sat on the ball to prep for overtime, Joey Harrington roamed the sideline as fiery as ever. “We’re NOT losing! We are NOT going to lose this game!” Joey shouted at every single player, going to each teammate one-by-one with a look in his eyes like a man possessed. It could be heard on the TV broadcast, and from the stands where my friend and I sat in complete bewilderment over the events that had just transpired in front of us.
“’We’re not gonna lose!’ I remember shouting that repeatedly,” Harrington recalls. “It was honestly how I felt. I don’t know what else to say except that it was exactly how I felt at that moment, and people on the sideline needed to hear it.”
“That was the biggest difference with Joey between his junior and senior year,” laughed Keenan Howry. “He was so high-strung as a junior. He would get so fired up and sometimes it would backfire. Senior year he rarely got like that, he was much more calm, he learned that all that jumping up and down and screaming wasn’t helping too much.”
The teams were exhausted. It had been a hot day, a long struggle. As the teams neared totaling 100 points for the game, and well over a thousand yards of offense, both teams rallied for the overtime. Both had fought too hard to give in, but ASU had let Oregon back into it and the Ducks weren’t going to slip up now.
“In OT we were thinking like what else could possibly go wrong…” said Jason Willis. “At that point we were so tired, but so were they. I think all the conditioning work we did worked for us, all the gassers that (strength and conditioning coach Jim) Radcliffe put us through all year really paid off because we had more energy than they did. Coach Rad would beat us up all summer, in camp, and during the season, it was rough but at the end of games a big reason why we made so many comebacks was because we were better conditioned than our opponents.”
Oregon won the coin toss and chose to defer, giving ASU the ball first. On the 2nd play of overtime, the game got downright wacky, leaving those witnessing it left to ponder, ‘what else?’ Krohn dropped back and threw the ball directly to Oregon cornerback Steve Smith, who intercepted it with a clear path to return it for a touchdown. Smith need only run a straight line down the sideline and the game would be over, Oregon would have pulled off the incredible comeback in dramatic fashion. But Smith held the ball loosely in his left arm, and in a bizarre twist of fate Jermaine Hanspard, the hero who had minutes prior recovered the miracle fumble, accidentally swatted the ball out of Smith’s hand causing a fumble. Players fell on the ball, the interception stopped ASU’s chances, but it didn’t end the game as it should have.
“We were excited by Steve’s pick, knowing that we had stopped them, now all we had to do was take care of business,” said Howry.
Now all Oregon had to do was score any points and the game would be over. The Ducks went ultra-conservative, running the ball directly into the line three times with Allan Amundson, not wanting to risk a mistake. This set up Oregon kicker Josh Frankel for a game-winning 42 yard attempt, but his kick sailed just barely left of the post. Oregon had their chance, twice, to win easily, and had screwed up both chances. Double overtime awaited.
In the stands my friend and I pitied those who had left the game early, particularly ASU fans content with the victory they thought they had, probably already off at the bars on Mill and Ash Ave. celebrating ASU’s triumph. We could barely breathe, hyperventilating, feeling as if we had suffered three heart attacks apiece over the course of that day. Just as my friend had thought ASU had won before the miracle fumble, I too was yelling ‘game over, let’s go!’ as Smith returned the interception until Hanspard inadvertently stripped his own teammate and the ensuing missed field goal. The second overtime would be played out in the endzone in which we sat, just like at the end of the 4th quarter, the events would occur in front of us at point blank range.
“Since we were getting the ball first, the mentality changed,” said Howry. “We HAD to score a touchdown, just had to. With the way that game had been going back and forth it was no question that we had to score a touchdown. We would have gone for it on 4th down, I know Coach Bellotti wouldn’t have left it up to the kicker again.”
Oregon got the ball first for the second overtime, and immediately went to work with a look like they wanted these shenanigans to end right here, right now. On the first play Harrington threw a pass to Keenan Howry for an 18-yard gain moving the Ducks down to the 7-yard line.
Following an incomplete pass, Harrington then ran an option keeper getting the ball down to the goal line. On 3rd down Harrington pitched the ball to the fastest player on the team, Allan Amundson, who sprinted as fast as he could on a student body left pitch play and outran all defenders to the pylon for the go-ahead touchdown. Following the extra point Oregon led 56-49, the first time during the entire afternoon that the Ducks had led.
Arizona State now had the opportunity to tie it to go to triple overtime, but they had to score a touchdown first. Tom Pace had sat out the end of the 4th quarter because of a shoulder injury that led to Williams being in for the miracle fumble, but for overtime Pace returned to the field to grit out the pain. The game was more important than pain.
On first down Tom Pace ran for a 5 yard gain, the next play Pace was given the ball again but was stuffed by linebacker Michael Callier for a loss, the same player that had forced the fumble late that led to overtime. This set up a long 3rd down with Oregon’s defense smelling victory, but ASU was not to be denied. Jeff Krohn threw a perfect pass to the endzone while he simultaneously took a huge hit, finding Richard Williams for a 22-yard touchdown. Those who had remained to watch could barely muster a cheer, everyone witnessing in a state of shock, adrenaline searing through the veins, causing a temporary paralysis of all thought or emotion. It was simply too intense, a game like this had never been seen before.
All that was left was to kick the extra point and this game was headed to triple overtime, but something seemed odd when Arizona State lined up for the kick. Quarterback Jeff Krohn was not the normal holder for ASU, but he was back there kneeling while ASU kicker Mike Barth, who had missed a field goal earlier in the game and appeared to be struggling with cramping issues, awkwardly lined up.
Upon the snap Krohn faked the hold, then stood up and began rolling out. Tight end Todd Heap was open in the back of the endzone, and the Oregon defense panicked to cover the play. The kicker laid a block to give Krohn room to throw and he lobbed a pass to the back of the endzone towards Heap, but safety Rasuli Webster had a grip on Heap’s right arm preventing him from being able to reach for the ball with both hands.
Heap was the best tight end in the nation by far, and had already proven earlier in the game that one hand was all he needed to haul in a pass. But not this time, as Heap could only get a fingertip on the ball as it fell to the ground, as the onlookers gasped. ASU had faked an extra point to go for two rather than send the game to triple overtime, and just like with passing it rather than running out the clock or running instead of kneeling on the ball, ASU’s brash decision-making had backfired. ASU had lost, 56-55.
“We were already going over what we were going to do on the 2-point conversion after we score a touchdown in the next overtime,” said Howry. “We weren’t even really watching the extra point, we knew they had scored and so we expected triple overtime. Then again, they were desperate. We had stopped them in the first OT, we had all the momentum and they looked exhausted. They had to do something, so I can see why they’d want to end the game now. Not sure if I would have gone for two like that, but If it had gone to triple OT I know we would have scored, not sure if they would have.”
“It was a freaking miracle, how did we just win that game?” Jason Nikolao remembers. “It was as much about them losing the game as it was us winning it, they really had to go out of their way to lose that game. If Oregon had lost, it would have devastated me, killed me, eaten at me forever. Knowing that maybe Oregon would have won if only I could have played, all the what-ifs that add up in your mind. If they hadn’t fumbled I don’t know if I would have ever forgiven myself.”
“We were so stunned when they faked it, like did that really just happen?” Jason Willis recalls. “I didn’t see Heap drop it, I just saw Rasuli Webster running around the field afterward going crazy…We were all on the sideline prepping for triple overtime, I didn’t see it, so we’re all looking around like what just happened. I sat down on the bench for a minute to just breathe, like I can’t believe what just happened. It was so draining, what an unbelievable game. I was so glad to be a part of it, it was one I will never forget.”
Considering the moment, Oregon’s celebration on the field was actually somewhat subdued, the result of part shock and part total exhaustion. As for my friend and I having just witnessed Heap drop the ball in front of us, we sat there for a few minutes not speaking just staring at the field, except for the occasional soft muttering, “did that really just happen?”
Once back in the locker room, with a chance to catch their breath, Oregon players and coaches finally assessed the improbable miracle in the desert that had just occurred.
“The locker room experience after the game was amazing,” said Nikolao. “We were a really tight group, we took it seriously as being a family. Bellotti was usually very composed, didn’t show too much emotion, but he couldn’t withhold it after that game, he felt it that day. To hear our coach talk about how proud of us he was and how much he loved us, it was special. Guys were hugging each other, jumping around in celebration, we couldn’t believe what happened. We had so much love for each other, the perseverence, the struggle, and the sense of accomplishment for it all to play out that way. To share that moment with guys that you really love, we’d put in so much work over the years and built this brotherhood and to have just won in that fashion, it was beyond description.”
“Bellotti is a very charismatic guy, but he doesn’t want to show emotion,” said Willis. “End of this game for the first time ever that we could remember all of us were running around screaming and jumping and Bellotti was ear-to-ear, everybody was partying, he couldn’t help himself but be excited about it. It was such a long game, everybody stood back and just let it all go and celebrated.”
While the party was taking place in the locker room, there was an aura of confusion outside the stadium. As my friend and I slowly made our way out of the stands surrounded by ASU fans, the chants of ‘FIIIII-IIIIIIRRRREEEE SNYYYYYYY-DDDDEEERRRR” eminated between perplexed looks on everyone as they asked each other aloud, “how did we lose that game? I don’t understand…we lost? How? What just happened?”
We made our way down to Mill Ave to get some hotwings and beers at a sports bar, where we met up with my friend’s buddies from the ASU student section and claimed the last table available. Five minutes later the line was around the block of depressed ASU fans wanting to drown their sorrows. After ordering a pitcher and bucket of wings, Sportscenter came on the TVs inside. I was the only Duck fan in the entire bar, and the place took an odd silence as everyone watched the screens. The top story wasn’t Oklahoma’s upset victory of #1 Nebraska that day, the lead story was the unbelievable finish that had just occurred down in Arizona.
“You are not going to believe what we are about to show you, call it the miracle in the desert!” the ESPN announcer enthusiastically shouted as the program immediately started replaying the highlights of the game we had all just witnessed. Grumbles could be heard throughout the restaurant as each highlight was shown and the announcers questioned Bruce Snyder’s odd decisions…why did they pass in this situation? Why did they run when they could have knelt on it? Why did they go for two?
When the final score flashed on the screen, 56-55, I pumped my fist and shouted out “YEAH! GO DUCKS!” The entire restaurant fell silent, every eye on me with the look of a lynch mob, as my friend and his buddies slumped down in their seats pretending like they weren’t with me. The waitress walked up and sternly said, “I think you should leave now.” We jetted out the door, never getting our food or drinks.
A party awaited the team upon return to Eugene. When the charter flight arrived back at the Eugene airport, a massive assembly of Oregon fans applaud their efforts down in the desert as they made their way through the terminal to the team bus.
“Getting back to the airport, that was one of the first times I remember a lot of people awaiting our arrival,” said Willis. “It was late, but as we walked through the terminal we could hear them screaming and hollering and there were so many out there. As we got on the bus people were honking their horns and flashing their lights at us in celebration, at one point coach (Bellotti) had the driver stop the bus so we could all wave. All around campus everyone was so happy, coach gave us Monday off from practice because it was such a long game, and I remember in class teachers stopped lectures to single us out and congratulate us on the great game on Saturday.”
“The injury I had didn’t take anything away from the celebration,” said Nikolao. “My leg was in a cast but I was on cloud nine, and seeing the love we got from people waiting for us back at the airport was amazing. It was the Oregon family, everyone was a part of that victory, every player, every coach, every fan, every staff member. You could see how proud everyone was of the win.”
“That was one of those games where once it’s over everybody is so exhausted all they want is to just get back on the bus and get out of there,” Howry recalls. “Around campus afterward people were great, but then again that’s just Eugene, Duck fans were always so great in showing their support.”
The win was more than just a W in the column, though there was still much football left to be played, it indicated that Oregon was a team of destiny. The momentum earned through the miracle in the desert propelled the Ducks to beat WSU and Cal the next two weeks, though a loss in the Civil War game vs. Oregon State prevented the Ducks from an all-out Pac-10 title. Still, the 9-2 finish had exceeded expectations, the legend of Harrington as Captain Comeback had grown from rumored to full-blown trademark, and a berth in the Holiday Bowl awaited with a matchup against Texas.
“The ASU game was a real turning point for us,” said Howry. “Up to that point in the year we had let teams stay with us, the scores were close but we had really shot ourselves in the foot, we kept other teams in the game. The ASU game was the first where we really had to fight through adversity and jetlag and fatigue and everything and we still overcame. It gave us a lot of momentum for the rest of the year.”
Few gave Oregon much of a chance in the Holiday Bowl against the storied tradition of the Texas Longhorns, but the Ducks would not be denied, and showed much of the flair and never-say-die attitude that had come to define the team through victories like the desert miracle. The Ducks would win that night in dramatic fashion, beating Texas 35-30, earning the program national respect. Oregon wasn’t a flash in the pan, they were more than just flashy uniforms, they were a team that found a way to overcome no matter the odds.
“The win over Arizona State taught us that we could play with anybody, that we could definitely overcome. That propelled us towards the Holiday Bowl and all the success that came afterward,” Willis reflects. “That started it all.”
Jason Nikolao: Following his senior year with Oregon (2000), Jason Nikolao joined the Jacksonville Jaguars. After tearing his rotator cuff, he returned to Eugene to assist the Oregon coaching staff for the 2001 season and to finish school. He signed with the Houston Texans for the 2002 season, but with his shoulder never properly healing he chose to retire from football. He has worked in student ministry, and currently lives in Nashville, TN with his wife and three month old son.
Jason Willis: Walk-on Jason Willis became a key contributor for the Oregon Ducks, known as one of the best blocking wide receivers in program history. Following his senior year (2002) he ran for the Oregon track team in 2003 on the 4×100 relay and 200m. He joined the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent, but broke his thumb the first game and spent the season on the IR. 2004 he returned with the Seahawks and competed with Jerry Rice for a position on the team. 2005 he was part of the final cuts from the Seahawks. Willis was signed by the Miami Dolphins and played throughout the 2006 season. In 2007 he was briefly in the Arena Football League until being signed by the Washington Redskins. 2008 to present day he has continued his career playing in the Arena Football League, with aspirations to return to the NFL for one more chance, showcasing the never-say-die attitude earned through being a walk-on with the Oregon Ducks, surviving all the close games and last-minute victories that defined Oregon during his playing years.
Joey Harrington: Considered one of the greatest quarterbacks in Oregon history and one of the most beloved to ever play in the state, Joey became the first legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate at the school, finishing 4th in voting in 2001. Known as “Captain Comeback” for his amazing ability to lead the team to last minute victories, he accumulated a 25-3 record as a starter and was selected third overall in the 2002 NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. After playing for Detroit, Miami, and New Orleans Harrington retired from football and now resides in Portland, OR as a broadcaster for the Longhorn Network after spending last year in broadcasting with the Oregon Sports Network.
Keenan Howry: Keenan Howry finished his career at Oregon as one of the most prolific receivers and returners in school history, Joey Harrington’s favorite passing target. In 2003 Howry was selected in the 7th round of the NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings. He spent four years in the NFL playing for the Vikings and Seahawks before retiring after the 2006 season. Howry returned to Eugene to complete his degree in 2010, and is now the wide receivers coach at his alma mater, Los Alamitos High School in Los Alamitos, CA.