15 year anniversary: Oregon’s 1996 season comeback (Part I)
Oregon opened the 1996 season strong, followed by a difficult mid-season slump. To open the season, Oregon had won a tight battle in the first-ever NCAA regular season overtime game over Fresno State. The next two non-conference games over Nevada and Colorado State were victories for Oregon, and the Ducks were nationally ranked. Unfortunately for Oregon, the defense struggled to adapt to Defensive Coordinator Rich Stubler’s Canadian Football scheme, and each game got more difficult. To make matters worse, injuries plagued the season. Senior Quarterback Tony Graziani was lost to a knee injury for five weeks, along with injuries to the tailbacks to thin the running game. When Oregon opened conference play over Washington State, they appeared to be dominating with a major opening drive to lead 7-0, but fell apart defensively and lost all rhythm from there, losing 55-44 and falling short of a fourth quarter come-from-behind. From there, Oregon was dominated by a very powerful Arizona State team (who had previously defeated #1 Nebraska) and put up 48 points over Oregon’s out-of-sync defense. Oregon then lost a 7-7 halftime tie to UCLA at home, unable to stop the powerful UCLA QB Cade McNown and company on a second half 34-point explosion to lose 41-22. Against Stanford, Oregon held a 17-0 lead at one point with the return of Graziani, but the defense allowed a fourth quarter comeback by Stanford. A 24-21 lead was lost due to a defensive penalty on the final play, allowing Stanford a tying field goal and the victory in overtime. Oregon’s biggest struggle of the year came at home over a very powerful Washington team. Washington ended Oregon’s two-game winning streak in the series, led by powerful conference-leading Runningback Corey Dillon dominating the out-of-sync defense singlehandedly by scoring three touchdowns and 250 yards in a deflating 33-14 route.
Following the Washington game, many Oregon faithful had lost faith. “Gang Green” had come to an end with Rich Stubler at the reins, Oregon sat at the bottom of the Pac-10 standings at 3-5 and 0-5 conference. Oregon went from #12 in the nation defensively in 1995, to #108 in 1996; and ranked dead last in the Pac-10. Oregon’s only shot at a winning season and bowl eligibility meant winning the remainder of its games. Following two dominant years of national rankings and nine-win seasons, some wondered if Oregon would even get another victory and/or have to beat Oregon State in the Civil War just to avoid last place as in decades past. However, Oregon had strong senior leadership. Many of the upperclassmen were part of the 1995 Rose Bowl team, and remembered overcoming the 1-2 start as a team in 1994. Following the Washington game, Coach Mike Bellotti spoke to the media about Oregon’s remainder of its season. Bellotti made it known that Oregon had completely had it with losing, and vowed to not lose again for the remainder of the year. Oregon had a bye week to prepare for its final three games, and the team was ready to make the most of its week off to focus and regroup.
THE ARIZONA GAME:
Fifteen years ago in mid-November 1996, Oregon began its under rated dominant finish to the 1996 season. After two weeks off, Arizona came to town on November 9 for the Homecoming game at Autzen Stadium. The game began with disappointment and doubt for Oregon; struggling defensively and appearing out of sync as in games prior. Though Derrick Barnes recorded a sack on the first play, Arizona Quarterback Keith Smith ran an option right through the line and into the secondary before finally being brought down by Jaiya Figueras in the red zone. On the very next play, Arizona marched it in on a toss sweep by the tailback from 14 yards out to claim the first lead of the game. 7-0, Arizona; in only four plays for 76 yards (all on the ground.) Oregon attempted a response as Oregon’s Most Inspirational Player Award winner Kevin Parker ran back the kick to midfield to give the Ducks great field position. Oregon Quarterback Tony Graziani came out firing on all cylinders, finding Damon Griffin deep in Arizona territory. However, a fumble by Oregon nullified everything, as Arizona returned the fumble for a 75 yard touchdown to sink Oregon into an even deeper hole. 14-0, Arizona.
From there, some fans were ready to leave the stadium in the first quarter. After watching Oregon suffer during the previous five games, only the most loyal of fans gave Oregon a chance. Oregon was ready to prove their worthiness, and immediately began to show it on the next drive. Oregon’s dominant kickoff return speedster Pat Johnson took the kickoff from the Oregon 20 and returned it beyond midfield to the Arizona 42. On the first play from scrimmage, Tailback Saladin McCullough began his most dominant day of his career, taking the handoff and breaking through the line untouched to sprint his way 42 yards into the end zone. Placekicker Josh Smith’s PAT then connected, and Oregon immediately cut the deficit down to seven and get the crowd and players back into the game. 14-7, Arizona.
Oregon’s defense held Arizona on the next series, capped by another sack on third down to force a punt. Graziani (not even 100% healthy) used his senior leadership to guide the team downfield and change the complexion of the game, completing 4/4 passes on the drive. Saladin McCullough had two runs for a first down including one of 15 yards into the red zone and just shy of the goal line. Graziani completed the job, keeping the ball, rolling left and rushing for a well-deserved touchdown to tie the game. 14-14 would be the score as Smith’s PAT connected, and Oregon began to prove the naysayers wrong. Oregon’s defense began to dominate from there, stuffing the run and holding Arizona to three-and-out. The first quarter would end tied 14-14.
Arizona marched deep into Oregon territory early in the second quarter, but Oregon held strong on a major sack by Safety Jaiya Figueras to hold Arizona to a field goal attempt. The field goal was successful to give Arizona back the lead, 17-14. However, Arizona’s lead would not last long. On Oregon’s next series, Graziani proved his senior leadership by converting a second third down of the day to Damon Griffin and into Arizona territory. Only two plays later, Saladin McCullough took the handoff at the Arizona 40 to cut to the right and outrace defenders down the sidelines for the 40 yard touchdown run. 21-17, Oregon. Oregon’s defense again held Arizona, then got the ball again to drive for another score. Graziani threw another strike into Wildcat territory, then ran the option to pitch at the last minute to Saladin McCollough – who again outraced the Arizona defense down the sidelines to score from 34 yards out. 28-17, Oregon. Arizona kept it close going into the half by recovering an Oregon fumble deep in Oregon territory, capped by a 13 yard touchdown pass right before halftime to pull within four. 28-24, Oregon, Halftime.
Oregon opened the second half on fire. Graziani led Oregon into Arizona territory on an option run, followed by one huge run after another by McCullough to move the ball closer. Graziani then had another run to get Oregon into the red zone, followed by several runs by McCullough inside the five, and capped by a one yard run by McCollough for his fourth score of the day. 35-24, Oregon. Arizona was down, but not out. They put together a drive of their own, going 78 yards in a six minute drive to cap with a touchdown to pull within four. 35-31, Oregon, as would remain the score to end the third quarter.
Arizona had outscored the opposition 83-19 in the fourth quarter all year. Oregon, however, was ready to turn the tide on that day. Early in the fourth quarter, “Gang Green” veteran Derrick Barnes proved there was still some of the “Gang Green” power left in Oregon; forcing a fumble on the Arizona QB and recovering the fumble deep in Arizona territory. Several plays later, Saladin McCullough would score his fifth touchdown of the day to set an Autzen Stadium record and give the Ducks a two-score lead. 42-31, Oregon.
McCullough could have scored even more, but would leave the game with an injury sustained on the touchdown. On Oregon’s next possession, Graziani would re-injure his knee and have to leave the game as well, mid-way through the fourth quarter. Oregon’s defense, however, would hold Arizona scoreless from there, and Oregon took over again on offense. Backup Quarterback Ryan Perry-Smith had come a long way in leading Oregon through Graziani’s injury absence, and came in to prove his senior leadership by leading Oregon to their final score of the game. Perry-Smith converted two third downs. Tailback Kevin Parker did a remarkable job relieving McCullough, running for two huge gains to get Oregon into the red zone. From the 25 yard-line on third down, Perry-Smith threw for the game’s first touchdown reception, finding Damon Griffin at the eight yard line, and the All-Pac-10 receiver Griffin did the rest by fighting his way into the end zone dragging four defenders in for the score. 49-31, Oregon.
The touchdown would minimize Arizona’s chances to mount a comeback with only six minutes remaining. Oregon’s defense held Arizona to a three-and-out, and the Wildcats would have to punt with under four minutes to play. Pat Johnson returned the punt for a touchdown, but it would be called back on a controversial blocking call, which appeared not in the back as called. Oregon, however, would milk the clock to prevent anything big from Arizona. The clock ticked to zero, and the celebration was on over a hard-earned triumph.
Oregon overcame a 14-0 deficit to dominate and never relinquish the lead, proving the true heart of the team. Center Mark Gregg was the unsung offensive hero of the day with the most blocks; and Safety Jaiya Figueras led the team in tackles and had two sacks to be the unsung defensive hero. Saladin McCullough rushed for a (modern) Oregon record of five touchdowns, outgaining twice Arizona’s total 101 yards rushing all by himself with 223 yards. McCullough would earn MVP and the Pac-10 player of the week award. Oregon won in impressive fashion to get their first conference victory, while getting back on track to improve their record to 4-5 on the season and stay on track for a winning season. Final Score: Oregon 49, Arizona 31.
The California Game:
Oregon would play their final home game of 1996 on November 16 as the Bears of California came to town. It was the final home game for 26 seniors – all stalwarts who had been with Oregon through thick and thin, many playing a huge part in leading Oregon to the 1995 Rose Bowl. The seniors wished to go out in style, which meant beating a California team with impressive victories under their belt. Cal had began the season 5-0 including a big win at USC, but was coming off a three game losing streak and prepared to end it over Oregon.
On a rainy night at Autzen Stadium, Oregon came out on fire and was not about to let the pouring rain extinguish their flame. Senior Ryan Perry-Smith would start in place of the injured Graziani for the final home game of his career. Perry-Smith made the most of his senior night, well earning the Most Improved Player awarded given to him at the year’s end. Perry Smith led Oregon on their first drive of the night into Oregon territory. Cal’s defense held Oregon to a fourth down, but kicker Josh Smith gave Oregon its first points, connecting on a 30 yard field goal, and the Ducks would never trail. 3-0, Oregon.
Both defenses remained tough through the first quarter, assisted by the pouring rain. 3-0 would remain the score through the second quarter. Cal’s gifted athlete Deltha O’Neil became a star in the Bear Secondary and remains an NFL cornerback, but would face the Ducks on offense that night as a Freshman, as Cal put together a drive into Oregon territory (mostly from O’Neal runs.) Oregon held Cal to a 44-yard Field Goal by kicker Ryan Longwell – native Oregonian who remains active in the NFL. 3-3, would be the score; but not for long.
The last five minutes of the first half would be very dramatic. Oregon got a spark on the kickoff return by Pat Johnson, making his way through a wall of defenders and to midfield. From there, Kevin Parker (in for the injured Saladin McCullough) made his presence felt to begin a dominant night over his future employer. Parker, now a recruiter for University of California Football, ran into Bear territory with three consecutive first down runs. From inside the five yard-line, Parker would run it in for his first touchdown as a Duck. (Incidentally, Parker had scored his first points as a Duck the previous year against California on a two-point conversion.) 10-3. Oregon.
California attempted a response as they drove to midfield, but two seniors left over from the “Gang Green” Defense came through big for Oregon. Linebacker Reggie Jordan blitzed and batted down a pass to an open receiver. On the next play, Deltha O’Neal could not hold onto the wet ball when hit from behind, and Linebacker Derrick Barnes would return the loose ball to the California 20 yard line. Three plays later, Parker (a.k.a “K.P” to his team) came through for Oregon again, running an option from Perry-Smith and taking it into the end zone for the score. 17-3, Oregon, with only a minute remaining in the first half.
Oregon’s only goal with one minute remaining was to prevent an California score. However, Oregon went above and beyond their goal, as Derrick Barnes and Reggie Jordan came through big again for Oregon in their final home game at Autzen. Barnes made a hit from behind on a Bear runner, causing him to lose control of the ball and be recovered by Jordan on the wet turf.
Oregon, with one final shot, made the most of its final possession of the half. From midfield, Perry-Smith proved his senior leadership, completing two strikes for first downs on the sidelines to Tony Hartley and Damon Griffin. Two plays later, Perry Smith rolled left, looked right, and threw a perfect strike from 30 yards out to Tight End Blake Spence wide open in the end zone. 24-3, Oregon, as would end the first half. In only five minutes, Oregon had turned a 3-3 tie into a three touchdown halftime advantage.
In the third quarter, Cal appeared ready top mount a comeback. A blown tackle on a pass reception enabled Cal’s speedster receiver Dameane Douglass to speed his way into the end zone to make it a two score game; 24-10, Oregon. On Oregon’s next drive, a perfectly thrown ball by Perry-Smith could not be grasped wet, bouncing right off the receiver’s hands and into the hands of a Bear defender. The very next play, Cal was right back into the game as Cal QB Pat Barnes found All-Pac-10 receiver Bobby Shaw wide open in the end zone to cut Oregon’s lead to only seven. 24-17, Oregon. Many worried that Oregon was in trouble, possibly about to allow the same comeback as against Stanford earlier in the season. Realistically, Perry-Smith and company were ready to prove how far that had come and would not allow that to happen on the very next drive. After a great kick return by Pat Johnson was called back, Kevin Parker kept his hot streak alive on several first down runs and to midfield. Perry Smith threw a perfect strike to Pat Johnson who came out of double coverage to give Oregon the first down in Bear territory. Reserves Jerry Brown and Derien Latimer also carried for a first down each and into the red zone to the five. Then on First and Goal, Perry-Smitt threw a perfect strike to the end zone to a wide-open Damon Griffin, who slipped but made the catch to give Oregon back a two-score lead. 30-17, Oregon; as would be the score to send the game to the fourth quarter.
To begin the fourth quarter, Cal had all the momentum. Toward the end of the third, Cal had began a drive down field with one short first down after another, and were closing in on the end zone. A fourth and inches was converted by the Bears at the Oregon two, and Cal earned a fresh set of downs. From there, many thought Cal would punch the ball into the end zone. To make matters worse, the powerful athlete Deltha O’Neal was lined up in the backfield. On first down, Cal took the snap and handed off to O’Neal running right. O’Neal closed in on the end zone, when met by the powerful Peter Sirmon. Sirmon made the initial hit, and O’Neal attempted to fight for the end zone. However, the wet ball would pop loose. Remarkably, there was the legendary Kenny Wheaton right in front, who scooped up the loose ball for one of the greatest plays of his career. Coincidentally enough, Wheaton was nearly in the very same spot near the very goal line where he made his most famous play two years earlier against Washington. Wheaton maintained control before he went out of bounds at the one, and the turnover belonged to Wheaton as the Ducks took over possession and momentum.
From there, the Ducks never looked back. With all the momentum on their side, the Oregon offense moved the ball at-will. Latimer took Oregon out of the shadow of its end zone, and Perry-Smith had several first-down completions down field (three of them third-down conversions) along with a third down run of his own. Oregon kicker Josh Smith would cap the drive, connecting on a 20 yard field goal to give Oregon a 16-point lead. 33-17, Oregon.
Cal attempted to mount an improbable comeback in the final seven minutes, adding one more touchdown with four minutes remaining, but it would not be enough as the two-point conversion failed, and Oregon was too strong on its final possession. Leading 33-23, Perry-Smith and company went on one final offensive drive to milk the clock and put the game away. Perry-Smith led Oregon into the red zone, and Jerry Brown would score on a five-yard touchdown run with two minutes remaining to seal the deal for Oregon. The defense was too strong in the final two minutes, and the celebration was on. Oregon had accomplished a hard-earned second consecutive victory, sending the seniors out of Autzen in style as hoped. Final Score: Oregon 40, California 23.
-To Be Continued…