It wasn’t quite the same feeling at Autzen Stadium on Saturday as in classic Civil Wars past. The crowd was enthusiastic about the 49-21 win, but not necessarily at the stadium’s raucous peak. And understandably so: Instead of clinching a conference championship and January bowl birth by beating the Beavers, as has happened the last two seasons as well as in memorable years like 2001, 1995, 1994, and 1956 – or like the watershed greatest of great moments in Corvallis last year – the Ducks left Rich Brooks Field victors but with unfinished business. With a Pac-12 championship game against UCLA six days after the Oregon-Oregon State game, there was no euphoria, no fireworks.
What’s more, for me at least, it’s hard to truly hate the Beavers like in the past. Quite simply, Auburn has replaced them as the team I most loathe. Completing the greatest season in Oregon history, only to lose in the last seconds of the national championship would be reason enough to yearn for a victory over the Tigers more than anyone else in my mind. They may have had the most talented player on the field, but from the tone of their coach’s postgame acceptance speech to the perceived arrogance of SEC fans, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the championship trophy was not awarded for class.
Oregon State may be plagued by the occasional drunken escapade of one of its players, but head coach Mike Riley’s program, as well as how he represents it, is a breath of fresh air by comparison.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s fun to beat the Beavers, and to quiet our neighbors who are unfortunate enough to have chosen orange and black. And the thing about the Oregon-Oregon State rivalry is that it’s personal. For most of my life, for example, growing up a passionate Oregon fan in the heart of Oregon State Country made me loathe the Beavers more than any other person, place or thing in the universe. At my first Civil War in 1980, at the age of eight, a drunken Beaver fan snarled at me, “Little kid, I hope you freeze to death.” Each year during my ’80s childhood as the calendar reached late November, the sense of anxiety and dread would become palpable: would I be celebrating like V-E Day in 1945, or subject to the nasty taunts of my knuckle-dragging Beaver fan elementary school classmates?
As it became clear around halftime in this year’s Civil War that the Ducks were going to win the game, I couldn’t help but think back to countless Duck-Beaver clashes of past. Perhaps my favorite as an attendee of the game came in 1987, when a Bill Musgrave-led squad made up in part for a bowl-worthy team staying home for a 25th straight postseason (the freshman quarterback had been injured for part of the year) by lambasting the Beavs 44-0. Late in the game, I proved my mercilessness as a Duck fan to my father when I jumped for joy over a meaningless OSU touchdown was called back on a penalty.
The Civil War may have been at its most intense in periods such as the 2000s or the 1960s when a trip to Pasadena was often on the line. Yet the down years of both programs in the 1970s and ’80s made the annual Ducks-Beavers clash a different kind of big game. For much of these years, beating your in-state rival was all the team and its fans could cling to. A win of any kind for these teams was sometimes a rare, joyous affair. But even amidst the losing seasons under Don Read and Rich Brooks in these Ford-Carter-Reagan years, the Ducks always had one ace in the whole: they always beat the Beavers. Save for the infamous “Toilet Bowl” scoreless tie of 1983, Brooks’ teams went unbeaten against the Beavers (his alma mater) from 1976-1987.
All that said, it’s hard to beat the last four years, which have seen not only a four-game Oregon winning streak (after the Beavers had won five of eight in the series), but each game has come with a conference championship on the line.
It began in 2008 with what turned out to be Mike Bellotti’s swan song in the series, with Oregon playing the rare role of spoiler to the Beavers’ Rose Bowl hopes. Think long touchdown runs by Ducks in all white (from Jeremiah Johnson to the “D-Boys”) and dejected Beaver fans at Reser Stadium tossing roses into garbage cans. Then there was the 37-34 squeaker at Autzen in 2009, led by LaMichael James, Jeremiah Masoli and Jeff Maehl. Which brings us to the greatest day in Ducks history, the securing of a 12-0 season at Reser with Chip Kelly bathed in Gatorade and Jerry Allen in tears.
Beating the Beavers may not have been as dramatic this year, but as days of rain in the Willamette Valley gave way to a clear Saturday of domination this past weekend, it was a chance to stop and ponder how lofty a perch Oregon has come to occupy at this point in its history, at least for the time being. As programs across the country have demonstrated, any great college football program, no matter how solid their foundation and tradition may seem, can become a house of cards crashing down. There may come a time again when the Ducks are a struggling team again, thirsty for wins of any kind. If beating the Beavers easily and thrillingly this year was a ho-hum affair, it’s a testament to all that they have achieved.
Yeah, we’ll take a Civil War win turned from 11 down to 10. Kind of like how, for all that yearning for another shot at that national title, we’ll happily take a chance for an almost equally elusive Rose Bowl win.