It was New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2001. A year with many twists and turns was about to draw to a conclusion, and everyone prepared for only the second official year of the new millennium. The world had yearned for the year 2000, but had to wait another year for the official new millennium to begin, as had been explained years earlier on Seinfeld.
The new year was of special interest for Oregon fans with few getting much rest, a lot of drama would unfold everywhere, but it was the eve of by far the biggest game in Duck football history, the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. Oregon was to face off against the much-hyped Colorado Buffaloes, winners of the Big-12 who had caught the attention of the entire country in the wake of their back-to-back victories over Nebraska and Texas.
2001 was a year full of both good and bad times. A year that started with great promise ended with tremendous turbulence and sadness. George W. Bush became the new president following a controversial national election in 2000, Seattle experienced its worst earthquake in Washington State history, Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed, and the United States suffered its first attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor sixty year prior and most deadly in history with over 3,000 lives lost on September 11.
At the University of Oregon, 2001 was a very memorable year in the quiet isolated city of Eugene, making it seem like the rest of the world’s chaos was miles away. The men’s basketball was having its best season in ages led by Freddie Jones and the two Lukes (Luke Jackson and Luke Ridnour), on their way to an eventual Elite 8 finish in the NCAA Tournament. The football team, despite an unanticipated break in games due to the “national mourning period” following 9/11 where games across the country were canceled, had survived through the Pac-10 conference excluding one 4th quarter hiccup against Stanford that prevented the Ducks from being in the national championship.
It was a very dramatic year with heart-stopping moments, four fourth quarter come-from-behind victories, eight games not decided until the fourth quarter, seven games decided by ten points or less, and a 10-1 record was about to be concluded the following day in the 32nd annual Fiesta Bowl. It was Oregon’s great reward for a great season, culminated with a national-television audience watching the Civil War, played for the first time in December in the series’ history to accommodate the maximum number of eyeballs on the event. While the weather didn’t cooperate to help Joey Harrington with his Heisman campaign, the Ducks delivered nonetheless.
Senior Quarterback Joey Harrington returned to the Arizona desert, where the previous season he had led a double overtime comeback victory that defied logic and proved that with this team, anything was possible. A 56-55 win over Arizona State had shocked everybody, in that it seemed like until the final moment of the 4th quarter the Ducks had no chance, but like Harrington was always inclined to do, somehow the Ducks persevered.
Harrington had thrown for six touchdowns in the game and over 400 yards; and Harrington had also performed spectacularly in games in Tucson (his first career comeback in 1999 and a blowout win earlier in 2001,) so perhaps there was something about the desert air that made Harrington and the Ducks outperform their opponents. Despite the familiarity with Sun Devil Stadium and the desert atmosphere, overwhelmingly Colorado was deemed the favorite in the game.
Midnight struck to begin the year 2002, and game day was officially on. The whole world celebrated the new year, but the Oregon Football team’s lights were out well in advance of the midnight hour in total preparation for the big game. The BCS festivities had included a week of concerts, team-related events, and fan events, but finally it was down to business.
Night turned to day. The Oregon Football team got up early at the fancy Princess Hotel in Scottsdale, went about business, and boarded the bus for Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. Oregon knew the time had come to prove their worthiness after all of the attention had gone in the direction of favored Colorado since their arrival six days earlier. As the nation watched all of the traditional bowl games unfold all morning, the entire valley of the sun eagerly awaited their game in Tempe. Both teams arrived the morning of to prepare for the biggest game of the season for both schools (and in the history of Oregon.)
Oregon, a heavy underdog, had worked very hard to come as far as they did. Lead by a terrific senior class with high leadership abilities and a true work ethic; Oregon was as prepared as possible to prove they had worked hard to come this far, and was not about to let anything get in their way. Only hours remained until kickoff, and the entire state of Oregon was watching what would later go down as one of the greatest games in Oregon Football history. Oregon would suit up and take the field as the pre-game clock wound down.
Prior to the start of the game, Harrington said on the national ABC telecast: “One game left, and we’re here to prove we’re among the nation’s best.” At the start of the telecast from Tempe, the spotlight began to shine on Colorado immediately. The ABC broadcasters promptly pointed out Colorado’s Offensive Line (known as “The 1400 LB Stampede”) having the five players pose for the cameras prior to the game, along with their famous Tight End Daniel Graham and Fullback Brandon Drumm. The media spotlight was obviously all over Colorado, as they showed Colorado take the field first while paying a great deal of attention to the tradition of running out the buffalo; followed by an interview with then-coach Gary Barnett. Oregon, however, had come too far to let the media get them down as they took the field; knowing they had what it took to succeed regardless of all of the attention going elsewhere.
The 2001 Oregon team had game captains instead of season long captains. However, Coach Mike Bellotti believed in saving the best for last, and only the team’s most elite (all seniors) were chosen to lead the team to the center of the field to begin the game. The four senior captains were Linebacker Wes Mallard, Cornerback Steve Smith, Tight End Justin Peelle, and of course–Quarterback Joey Harrington. The captains for both teams took midfield for the coin toss to shake hands.
Of the nearly 100 players on the team, only 22 (plus two specialists) earned the right to start the game. Starters would be:
Quarterback: Joey Harrington (Senior)
Tailback: Maurice Morris (Senior)
Fullback: Josh Line (Senior)
Wide Receiver/Split End: Samie Parker (Sophomore)
Left Tackle: Jim Adams (Senior)
Left Guard: Ryan Schmid (Senior)
Center: Dan Weaver (Sophomore)
Right Guard: Joey Forster (Sophomore)
Right Tackle: Corey Chambers (Junior)
Tight End: Justin Peelle (Senior)
Wide Receiver/Flanker: Keenan Howry (Junior)
Left End: Seth McEwen (Junior)
Left Tackle: Zack Freiter (Senior)
Right Tackle: Chris Tetterton (Senior)
Right End: Darrell Wright (Junior)
Inside Linebacker: Kevin Mitchell (Sophomore)
Middle Linebacker: David Moretti (Junior)
Outside Linebacker: Wes Mallard (Senior)
Left Cornerback: Rashad Bauman (Senior)
Right Cornerback: Steve Smith (Senior)
Rover: Rasuli Webster (Junior)
Free Safety: Gary McGraw (Senior)
Kicker: Jared Seigel (Freshman)
Punter: Jose Arroyo (Junior)
With that, the game was on; and Oregon was ready to compete on the national radar to prove their worthiness among the nation’s best…
-TO BE CONCLUDED…