It was a momentous day in Autzen Stadium history. Televisions nationwide tuned in to see the carnage ensue, expecting #4 BYU to showcase their dominance over the up-and-comers Oregon in sleepy Eugene, OR. But what they got was something far different, as what should have been a celebratory time in the spotlight for BYU’s superstar quarterback Ty Detmer instead became a giant blemish on his Heisman campaign and a vivid beating the Cougars would not forget for a long time. Detmer would be awarded the Heisman Trophy at the end of the season regardless, but on September 29th, 1990, BYU walked into a buzzsaw, an angry Oregon Ducks team out for vengeance, and a packed house fervently cheering on the destruction of one of the top-ranked teams in the nation.
To understand the events that transpired that fall day at Autzen Stadium in 1990, it is necessary to first look back one year prior, to Oregon’s trip to Provo to play BYU at Cougar Stadium. The Brigham Young Cougars were considered a national power, but no matter who was playing there was a pride level for Pac-10 teams when playing WAC schools.
“No matter how mediocre of a school you may be in the Pac-10, no matter what you do not lose to a WAC school,” said Peter Brantly, a linebacker for Oregon that was named All-Pac-10 in 1990 as a senior. “It didn’t matter how good a WAC team may be or how bad the Pac-10 team is, there was a conference pride there that no matter what the Pac-10 should always prevail.
The 1989 game between the schools should have been a great victory for Oregon, who at one point in the third quarter led BYU 33-16. BYU was 6-2 and in the driver seat for the WAC title, while the 5-3 Oregon Ducks were seeking to be bowl eligible for the first time in decades.
The Ducks dominated the game at first, but in the 3rd quarter after Oregon began pulling away, a series of horrendously bad referee calls going against Oregon and a long kickoff return got BYU back into the game.
Call it home cooking from the WAC officials perhaps, but with some key assistance from the men in black & white stripes, what had been a blowout somehow very quickly turned into a shootout.
The duel between Oregon’s Bill Musgrave and BYU’s Ty Detmer became one for the ages that day. By the time the dust settled together they would combine for the most passing yards in a single game in NCAA history, 959 yards in all. Both QBs threw for career marks that day, but with the help of some very odd penalties and bad calls BYU would emerge the victor in the final minute 45-41 in an amazing comeback.
“From the bus ride and whole flight home to Eugene after the game in Provo, all the way back we could not believe we lost that game,” said Brantley. “We felt like we should have won that game, but with the penalties and bad calls and people not getting called down, we felt like the game had been stolen from us.”
The Ducks couldn’t put 100% blame on referees though, Oregon hadn’t capitalized on all of their chances, in the first half the Ducks had been stopped on 4th & goal on the 1-yard line, and had a field goal blocked. Still, the Ducks left Provo with a feeling of being cheated.
The Ducks would rally and earn their first bowl game berth in 25 years, where they defeated Tulsa in the 1989 Independence Bowl, but the bitterness left behind by the collapse in Provo to BYU was still very evident. The game in Provo in 1989 had been stolen from Oregon, the coaches and players circled the 1990 rematch at Autzen Stadium and started plotting their revenge.
“In the five years I went through spring ball at Oregon, I don’t recall us ever game-planning for a specific team until 1990,” Brantley recalls. “In spring ball we worked on the BYU game plan, fall camp we worked on the BYU game plan, we wanted revenge bad. There were several days where we specifically worked on stuff BYU ran. I remember they ran a draw play that was very similar to a counter, our offense took that play from their playbook and added it to ours and ran it to death preparing us for that game. I remember one day in spring ball walking by Coach Schuler’s office and the coaches were watching BYU film, everybody wanted to win that one.”
“I was redshirting in 1989, so I wasn’t able to make the trip to Provo,” said cornerback Daryle Smith. “I listened on the radio, and when the team got back and we watched the film it really felt like we gave the game away, we made a lot of mistakes. Ultimately you give BYU credit for winning, but we made so many mistakes. The following year we had a really good week of practice, we were very excited for the game and still upset about the results from the year before. BYU had said some things in the paper about how they should have beaten us by more the year before that we took a little personal, we were ready to get after them.”
The Ducks would start off well in the path towards the BYU rematch winning the first two games of the season, but a last-minute loss to Arizona the week prior to the BYU game added an extra dash of anger to Oregon’s fury. BYU was 4-0, ranked #4 in the country, and expected to possibly contend for the national championship led by Detmer, now a senior and the consensus leader for the Heisman Trophy.
Oregon was very focused in the week leading up to the September 29th,1990 rematch at Autzen Stadium. There was a determination, a crispness to the practices as the Ducks went through their routines.
“I had suffered a concussion in the 1989 game, and their receiver Matt Bellini had a field day on me,” remembers safety Rory Dairy. “Someone kneed me in the helmet, and the next thing I remember was loud cheering because they scored on me. I asked Chris Oldham what happened and he waved for the trainers to come get me because I had no idea what had been going on for the past six or seven plays. For the 1990 game I had a little added incentive to get after them, make sure that didn’t happen to me again.”
There was also a family connection. Redshirt freshman linebacker John Taumoepeau had family on the opposite sideline, BYU runningback Peter Tuipulotu, and had almost attended BYU himself before ultimately deciding to be a Duck. “Secretly I hoped that Peter would have a good game, just as long as we still crushed them,” said Taumoepeau.
“We felt like as long as we could keep Bill (Musgrave) healthy, that nobody should ever beat us,” said Brantley. “We were very focused, we had been preparing for BYU since the day we lost to them the year before. That game had been circled on the calendar, we wanted revenge for the game that had been stolen from us. The intensity was very high in the week leading up to the rematch, we practiced that draw play a lot, and a lot of passing situations, we were so familiar with the BYU offense by that point since we had been practicing against it since spring ball.”
It was a perfect day for football in Eugene when gameday finally arrived. A national TV audience tuned in on ABC to witness a packed, frenzied house at Autzen Stadium with Brent Musburger and Dick Vermeil calling the game, the third largest crowd to have ever witnessed a game in Eugene at the time. There was good cause for the excitement, the bad calls leading to BYU’s improbable comeback the year before was still fresh, and there would be no greater revenge for the travesties of that game than to ruin the championship and Heisman plans for Detmer and BYU.
“Over the years the stadium had started filling up more and more, I remember the first game I played in 1987 vs. Colorado and the corners of the stadium were completely empty,” said Brantley. “But the support we got that day was enormous. I remember being really ready to play, wanting to get back at those guys. We didn’t think they were very good, I mean they had talent but they didn’t deserve to be #1 in the country, we thought we were a much better team. Detmer was tough, a very good QB, but we were going to be on him all day and show what kind of team we were. There was just something special in the air that day, that feeling that came on gamedays against the Huskies or Beavers, that same energy was evident that day.”
The confidence was high for Oregon, and ABC was happy to oblige the Ducks sentiments, airing a song two teammates had been working on for the game.
It wouldn’t take long for Oregon to showcase their grit and determination to make up for the previous year’s loss. In the opening drive Oregon’s pass rush was relentless, sacking and pressuring Detmer into a 3-and-out.
Oregon’s defense was confusing BYU, utilizing a technique rarely used at the time but more commonly used today, the zone blitz scheme.
“We lined up LB Andy Connor at defensive tackle and would drop him into coverage. We practiced that a lot in preparation for BYU, it seemed to give Detmer a lot of problems all day trying to figure it out, and we got lots of pressure on him because of it,” said Brantley.
“We were playing a lot of man-to-man in the secondary, and what we called Chief coverage, where we kept a guy in the middle waiting for them to throw a cross because we were worried about their crossing routes,” said Daryle Smith. “The defensive line did a great job of attacking and shutting down their run game (BYU would finish with -32 total yards rushing in the game), so they had to pass a lot and tried to attack us deep, but we were ready for them.”
(Watch carefully as #47 Andy Conner lines up on the line, then drops into coverage where Singleton blitzes leading to the fumble)
BYU was having more problems beyond recognizing Oregon’s tricky 3-4 defense. BYU players had difficulty with Autzen Stadium’s slippery astroturf, which would get watered down before every game. Oregon players were used to the slick turf, but BYU was unprepared having brought improper footwear for the conditions, leading to lots of slips.
Following a punt, it took only a couple plays for Oregon to capitalize, with Bill Musgrave finding runningback Sean Burwell over the middle for a 31-yard touchdown pass. The already raucous crowd at Autzen was now at a fever pitch, every play ramping up the noise level even higher.
Following the kickoff with BYU pinned deep on their own 9-yard line, nosetackle Marcus Woods would show just how much Oregon meant business on this day. Pushing his way past a double team, Woods relentlessly pursued Ty Detmer into the endzone and dropped Detmer to the ground with a sumo-wrestler-esque belly bounce for a safety. The noise from the Autzen crowd could have measured on the richter scale in the aftermath as the Ducks celebrated. Oregon had come to play, and BYU quickly realized they would have to play the game of their lives just to keep pace.
“Marcus Woods, Matt LaBounty, Steve Kemp…It was a maximum defensive effort from so many guys,” said Smith. “We were where we were supposed to be and we made plays the whole game. I couldn’t believe how loud it got when Woods belly-flopped Detmer into the endzone.”
“Matt LaBounty and Marcus Woods both had a huge impact on the game pressuring Detmer,” Taumoepeau recalls. “They wanted to prove they could put some heat on Detmer. There was so much hype about BYU and Detmer, it was the first game I remember seeing what big-time college football looked like up close.”
Getting the ball back, Oregon tried to step on the Cougars’ throat early, but a throw into a crowded endzone by Musgrave resulted in a BYU interception.
BYU tried to mount a comeback, putting together a long drive, but Oregon’s defense was stout continuing the pressure, including a sack by Oregon LB Andy Conner.
Detmer got greedy going deep for the endzone, lofting a pass that floated allowing cornerback Daryle Smith to leap at the goal line to snag an interception.
“They tried to run a post on me, and being a taller guy who could jump I just leaped up and snagged it at the goal line,” Smith remembers.
With the ball moved out to the 20 on a touchback, Oregon would get a taste of the home cooking that BYU had benefited from the year prior, as on the first play a clear fumble by Sean Burwell was inexplicably ruled down. The Ducks mounted a drive that resulted in a field goal, making the game 12-0.
BYU wouldn’t go away quietly though, despite Oregon defenders in Detmer’s face on every play somehow the Cougars were able to move the chains resulting in a short Detmer touchdown pass, making it 12-7. BYU was back in it, but Detmer was taking a pounding. There was a reason why Oregon was able to get into the backfield, like any good poker player, linebacker Peter Brantley had recognized that his opponent had a tell.
“In the 1989 game I noticed halfway through it that Ty Detmer gave away the snap-count,” Brantley remembers. “He would give away the snapcount, because his fingers would flex right before the ball would be snapped. I remembered that in the 1990 game and let the guys know, if we could see Detmer’s fingers under center then we knew exactly when the snap was coming.”
Football is a game of inches, and to have an extra step, an additional split-second knowing the snap for a strong defense can be lethal to opposing quarterbacks, the difference between a completed pass and a sack. The Ducks took full advantage of that extra step. On the day Oregon’s defense would sack Detmer five times, but if not for Detmer’s quick release and ability to somehow evade attacking defenders with his feet that total could have been far higher, as nearly every pass play resulted in Detmer taking a big hit. BYU’s offensive line was simply no match for Oregon’s attacking 3-4 defense.
What had started as an offensive explosion settled down into a defensive struggle. Oregon slowly moved the chains using Musgrave’s passes dissecting BYU’s defense, while BYU got pass happy all but abandoning the run in the face of Oregon’s defensive line. BYU would try to win with their best player, but would Detmer be able to survive the whole game while running for his life on nearly every play?
Detmer managed to mount a drive that threatened to lead to a score before halftime, but a pass was intercepted in the endzone by Oregon safety Steve Kemp.
It was 12-7 at halftime, but momentum was clearly on Oregon’s side, and in front of a raucous crowd that five-point difference felt much bigger.
In the third quarter BYU would get a field goal on their first drive, but Oregon QB Bill Musgrave would kick things into high gear. On Oregon’s opening drive of the 2nd half Musgrave led a drive ending in a 12-yard touchdown pass to Michael McLellan.
Next drive Musgrave surpassed 152 yards on the game, making him the all-time career passing leader for the Ducks above Chris Miller, then the starting QB for the Atlanta Falcons, who had made his way back to Eugene to witness the festivities.
Shortly after breaking the record, Musgrave and company would break open the scoreboard again, mounting their second straight touchdown drive, this time finding a wide-open Jeff Thomason over the middle for a 30-yard touchdown pass. A two-point conversion failed, but Oregon was now putting the game away, leading 25-10.
BYU was in full pass mode now, but the Oregon secondary was swarming. Great defense would force a BYU punt, and Oregon would mount their third straight touchdown drive of the 2nd half, highlighted by a long Sean Burwell run and screen pass and finished off with a Bill Musgrave sneak, 32-10.
It was a long methodical drive highlighted with big runs by Burwell and crisp passes by Musgrave, the type of dominating performance that sends a message to the opponent and everyone watching. The message was simple, BYU was not the better team, at least not on this day, and maybe not the previous year either.
“The defensive line just dominated them all day,” Daryle Smith recalls. “They had to throw a lot, but it worked in our favor because our secondary was really up for the task. We were very confident, all year we were confident but we didn’t quite have the depth that the team does these days, if we had that kind of depth who knows how far we could have gone. Still, they were looking to go deep on almost every play feeling the pressure like they had to get back into it. It worked out well for me being a tall corner who could jump, Detmer started throwing deep and we took advantage.”
The #4 team in the country was getting embarrassed, Detmer’s Heisman chances withering away with a national audience finding out just how serious these Oregon Ducks were. On offense, on defense, and special teams Oregon had been unstoppable.
BYU was desperate, and started taking chances. Detmer kept testing the secondary, who had done a terrific job all day bracketing receivers. But on one play the BYU offense finally connected, an out-and-up move by Micah Matsuzaki burned the cornerback and Detmer hit him in stride down the sideline for a 69-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion failed, making it 32-16.
Oregon was now in ball control mode, choosing to burn off the clock rather than keeping up the pressure. Musgrave led the Ducks on clock-killing drives but would stall before reaching the endzone, giving the ball back to BYU who again kept trying to go downfield with the big play. The Ducks would make them pay, as cornerback Daryle Smith would again intercept a Ty Detmer pass, his 2nd on the day.
BYU’s defense again stopped Oregon, sensing that if they had any chance to comeback they couldn’t give up any more big plays. It almost backfired, as Musgrave had tight end Jeff Thomason open for a huge gain, but Thomason dropped the ball, forcing another punt. BYU would be forced to give the ball back to Oregon, intent to once more bleed the clock.
It was time for Sean Burwell to go to work. Oregon pounded the rock with their senior runningback, who gashed BYU for repeated first down runs keeping the clock moving. Oregon had a chance to tack on more points, but a Greg McCallum field goal attempt sailed wide.
On BYU’s first play following the field goal attempt , Oregon safety Steve Kemp intercepted a pass along the sidelines, but a penalty gave the ball back to BYU. Needing a big play, Detmer found a receiver over the middle for a big gain while backed up near their own endzone, moving it out to midfield. Detmer kept slinging it, picking up first downs. But the same BYU attack would result in the same result, as Daryle Smith once more intercepted Detmer, picking up the hat trick against the Heisman front-runner.
“For the third interception, the receiver could tell I was going to get the ball and he gave up on the play, just tried to push me out of the way,” Smith laughed. “I could hear the crowd cheering before I even got the ball because they could tell I had it all the way. Three interceptions in one game, it was a good day.”
It was the fourth interception of the day on Detmer, and with the clock under three minutes the Oregon crowd began chanting the familiar “na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, gooooo-oood bye!” while the broadcasters praised the crowd and performance by Oregon.
“Detmer took a beating, but he kept getting up, I give him credit for that, somehow he’d get the ball off at the last second,” said Brantley. “I remember hitting him once convinced I had a sack, I couldn’t believe he got the ball off.”
In the final minute with BYU putting together a too-little too-late drive, a Ty Detmer pass near the goal line would again be picked off, with Steve Kemp getting his second of the day. The Ducks had intercepted Detmer five times, sacked him five times, and harassed him on every play. It hadn’t been without a herculean effort by Detmer though, who despite taking a pummeling from the defense managed to throw for 447 yards on 57 pass attempts.
As Oregon knelt on the ball and the final seconds ticked off, Oregon students stormed the field to celebrate with their beloved Ducks. Oregon had never defeated a team ranked so high in their own house, and to do so in such a fashion was eye-opening to the rest of the country. Oregon was for real, and the media took notice.
“It was so loud that game,” Daryle Smith reminisced. “I thought we might go deaf, just the roar of the crowd, especially when Marcus Woods got the safety the place went crazy. BYU had no shot, they couldn’t audible because of the crowd noise, they couldn’t get on the same page because the crowd was so loud. The fans in Eugene I wouldn’t trade for anything, we could only pack in about 45,000 but Autzen was as loud as any stadium I had ever been in.”
“It was a day where everything went right,” said Peter Brantley. “We planned so much of our whole season around that one game, spent so much time preparing for BYU, it was a wonderful feeling to avenge the loss the previous year and do so in such a dominating way. It was probably the most satisfying win we had during my time there, everybody was just getting back to campus and classes starting, so it was really cool to start off the school year avenging a loss we felt like we really shouldn’t have had.”
“Since I had almost chosen to play at BYU myself to play alongside my cousin, to have beaten BYU as soundly as we did was tremendous justification that I had made the right decision to be a Duck,” said Taumoepeau.
A banner was paraded around Autzen Stadium that summed up the day perfectly, ‘Ty-died in Eugene.’
BYU would rebound from the loss, not losing another one for the rest of the year until their final regular season game vs. Hawaii, finishing the year 10-2 before a loss in the Holiday Bowl to Texas A&M. Ty Detmer would be awarded the Heisman Trophy, the highest individual honor in college football, but with a huge asterisk and a lot of bruises left behind from his day at Autzen Stadium against the Ducks.
Oregon meanwhile earned a trip to the 1990 Freedom Bowl, where they tragically lost in the closing minutes to Colorado State, but being able to go to two bowl games in a row after decades of losing still gave a great sense of accomplishment, that things were changing for the better in Eugene.
BYU’s loss to Oregon would be remembered well, as Peter Brantley found out when he was invited to the Shrine Game after the season, a game where Oregon and BYU head coaches Rich Brooks and LaVell Edwards would ironically be on the coaching staffs.
“BYU’s tight end Chris Smith was also invited to play in the Shrine Bowl with me that year, and he made a point to talk to me about the game we’d played earlier in the season,” Brantley remembers. “What kind of buzzsaw did you guys have out for us that day?’ Smith asked me, ‘What the hell got into you guys when we played you, you guys were so tough!?!.’ I just told him, ‘Well, I didn’t think we should have lost to you last year!’”