It wasn’t the first time Oregon and Oklahoma had played. Four times previously the Ducks and Sooners had faced off, every time they had trounced Oregon. It wasn’t pretty how lopsided the series had been.
1958 – Oklahoma 6 Oregon 0
1966 – Oklahoma 17 Oregon 0
1972 – Oklahoma 68 Oregon 3
1975 – Oklahoma 62 Oregon 7 (Oklahoma were national champions)
While these games had been payouts to supplement expenses for the program, by the 1990s Oregon was no longer an also-ran, by the 2000s a national powerhouse. So when Oklahoma came calling to set up a home-and-home series before the 2004 season, it wasn’t for a payout, it was about competing head-to-head against top competition, a matchup of the long-established elite and the new kids on the block.
Oregon and Oklahoma quickly agreed to play in Norman, OK early in the 2004 season, with a return trip to Eugene, OR slated for 2006. To agree to the open date in Oklahoma’s schedule required some last-minute shuffling by the Ducks, canceling their first game of the season against Utah State and having to replace their bye week later in the year with Portland State.
This meant that Oregon would take a bye week 1, and would have no in-season bye week, 11 straight games. Despite this difficult stretch laid out, the opportunity to have a home-and-home series with Oklahoma was too enticing to pass up.
The First matchup: Bad Play
Oregon at Oklahoma – September 18th, 2004
The season got off to a start more horrible and tragic than anyone could have anticipated, as incoming freshman Terrance Kelly was shot and killed a day before he left for Eugene to begin fall camp. Part of a heralded group of four incoming freshmen from top-ranked prep program De La Salle High School, his death not only shattered the worlds of the other incoming De La Salle freshmen but the tragedy tore apart the Eugene community and team with heavy hearts over this promising young athlete we would never get the opportunity to see play.
The Ducks would have to wait a while to get to playing football, as the week 1 bye meant Oregon would be the last team in the country to begin practicing and playing, more time to linger on the one teammate who would not be there.
The first game when it finally came around was not pretty. The Ducks stumbled over themselves, turning it over four times, and despite a valiant defensive effort gave away a game to the hapless Indiana Hoosiers 30-24, the first out-of-conference home loss at Autzen Stadium for head coach Mike Bellotti in his career. Bellotti would only ever suffer one other loss against an out-of-conference foe at Autzen Stadium, during his final year as head coach in 2008.
Perhaps it was the late start to the season, perhaps it was heavy hearts over the loss of Kelly, or perhaps it was looking ahead to the Oklahoma matchup looming the next weekend, but regardless of the cause the Indiana loss was an embarrassment…things would not improve.
“The Indiana loss was the culmination of a lot of things that occurred,” Brent Haberly remembers, a local product who grew up going to Duck games and was now a walk-on linebacker in his third year with the team. “I wasn’t necessarily close with Terrance Kelly, but since we played the same position we were out there that summer doing 7-on-7’s and I was teaching him how we did things. Then one weekend everybody goes home before camp starts, and he doesn’t come back. That was really tough on everybody.”
Oklahoma was ranked #2 in the country, Oregon 0-1 and unranked, but a national television audience tuned in to see if the Ducks could muster a fight against the Sooners. Oklahoma had a lengthy tradition and a powerful roster stacked with future NFL players, including a certain freshman that had been ranked the #1 rated runningback in the country out of high school in 2003, Adrian Peterson.
There was more to prepare for with the trip to Norman than just the prospect of facing the #2 team in the country, as both media distractions and the weather would also be a factor in preparation for the game.
“I remember one day in fall camp we had an ‘Oklahoma’ practice,” said Geoff Schwartz, at the time a freshman offensive lineman, now entering his fourth season with the Carolina Panthers. “Coach Bellotti sent us into the Mo (Moshovsky Center) and had them crank up the heat to something ridiculous like 110, it was unbearable. We were sweating so bad, we couldn’t believe that we would actually have to play in heat like that in Norman, but when we got there, yeah it was that hot. It was my first road game, and I remember getting into that stadium and looking around at all the hall of famers and national championships. Oregon fans showed up though, we had nearly 10,000 fans there.”
“Sports Illustrated followed us around all week preparing for the Oklahoma game,” Haberly recalls. “Bellotti turned up the heat for practice. There were a few injuries among the linebackers so I was practicing with the second team and also on the scout punt return team, and I remember sweating so much I kept coming out of my shoes because they were so drenched, we had to keep changing because we were sweating so badly. When we got to Oklahoma, the day before the game we went to the Oklahoma City bomb site and got a tour, and then we went to the stadium for a walkthrough. The ambiance of that stadium, looking around and seeing 140 All-Americans, Heisman winners, national championships…it was really an eye-opening experience, and there were wide-eyes for that game the next day you could tell. I didn’t think I was going to play much, but guys were on the sidelines puking from the heat so I went in on the kickoff team for a bit. What I remember most is that they fire off cannons during kickoffs when the ball is struck, and it freaked me out the first time they shot it off.”
The Oregon fans traveled to Norman, a large contingent making their way to one of the hallowed grounds of college football, but the Oregon offense was left behind back in Eugene. While the Oregon defense fought tough, the Duck’s couldn’t find much consistency against the stout Oklahoma defense, and slowly the Duck defense began to wither under the heat.
In the early stages Oklahoma was able to drive deep, but defensive end Devan Long came up with a big play to stop the Sooners, sacking Oklahoma QB Jason White forcing a fumble recovered by Matt Toeiana that gave signs early at least that the Ducks weren’t going to automatically roll over for the heat and luster of Oklahoma’s tradition.
The Ducks couldn’t put together a scoring drive however, and Oklahoma’s ensuing drive resulted in a field goal. In the 2nd quarter Oregon started threatening to make it a game, but an intentional grounding penalty that was seemingly called by Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops himself after a minute of whining pushed the Ducks out of scoring range.
It was downhill from the penalty. While the defense continued to fight hard, the offense just couldn’t move the ball much against the Oklahoma defense. The Sooners took a 10-0 lead in the 2nd quarter, but the defense wasn’t yielding easily.
As halftime approached, and desperate to get out of their own endzone, Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens made a play that in the overall scheme of things didn’t mean much, but symbolized the never-say-die spirit that would come to symbolize Oregon’s teams later on. Wrapped up for a sack on third down, Clemens pushed the pile forward carrying multiple defenders for a first down.
Clemens’ play allowed the Ducks to bleed off the remainder of the clock without allowing the Sooners to have another scoring threat, thanks to some mindgames by Mike Bellotti that left Bob Stoops screaming mad resembling his brother Mike Stoops more so than the typical whining act Bob is known for.
At halftime Oregon had not done much offensively, but the defense had played well keeping the game manageable. In the 2nd half, the defensive effort could not be sustained. The Ducks did have one shining moment of offensive prowess, stringing together a couple plays the culminated in a 30-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dante Rosario, cutting the lead to 10.
But the heat was taking its toll, despite practices inside the Mo with artificial heat pumped in, Oregon simply was not prepared for the humidity that day in Norman. There was also a talented running back on the Sooners side, and in the 2nd half Peterson showed why he was so highly-sought, running all over the Ducks, finishing the day with 183 yards and two touchdowns.
The Ducks didn’t help their cause with repeated dropped passes, missed blocks, missed tackles in a day of bad play all-around by the team in white; but it was clear that Oklahoma was the far superior team as they steamrolled Oregon 31-7. The Ducks would have two years to prepare for Oklahoma’s trip to Autzen Stadium with hopes of paying back the beat-down issued by the Sooners on this day.
The Holiday Bowl: Bad Luck
Oregon vs. Oklahoma – December 29th, 2005
The 2004 season left a bad aftertaste for the Oregon program. The team finished 5-6, limping their way through the final games with a ton of injuries, no bye week during the season to rest, close emotionally-draining losses like a last-minute self-inflicted failure against Cal 28-27, and the lingering thoughts of the teammate who was no longer there in Terrance Kelly. It was only the second time in Mike Bellotti’s tenure that the Ducks hadn’t gone to a bowl game, the first losing season of his career. Something was wrong with the Oregon program, it was time for a change.
The Ducks had a huge overhaul during the offseason going into the 2005 year. New uniforms, and a new offensive scheme were added. Offensive Coordinator Jeff Ludwig (nicknamed “Dudwig” by frustrated fans), whose vanilla offense had become so predictable many fans in the stands could surmise what play Oregon was running pre-snap with about 75% certainty, was strongly encouraged to seek employment elsewhere. Ludwig’s replacement was Gary Crowton, who worked with Bellotti in the offseason to research the spread offense being run by several schools around the country. Studying successful spread systems, the Ducks implemented a scheme radically different from the all-too-familiar pro set system that had been the Bellotti trademark since his arrival in Eugene in 1989.
Also added to the team was a talented group of newcomers, one of the top-rated recruiting classes in school history, highlighted by the addition of the #1 runningback in the country that year, Jonathan Stewart. Like Adrian Peterson the year before, now the Ducks too had a battering ram that was the envy of every other program in the nation, and it was only a matter of time before Oregon’s #1-ranked prep superstar runningback and Oklahoma’s #1-ranked prep superstar would have a clash of the titans. That date with destiny appeared to be a year away, but as luck would have it the two would meet far sooner.
The 2005 Oregon team was the antithesis of the 2004 squad. Not the most talented team ever at Oregon, but quite possibly one of the closest, they exemplified the epitome of football synergy. Featuring the #1 defense in the Pac-10 conference led by consensus All-American defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, the Ducks started out the season in grand fashion stomping Houston, albeit the opening day atmosphere on national TV was somewhat subdued as the game was played in Reliant Stadium while next door the Astrodome was filling up with people escaping the carnage in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The Ducks won that night in impressive fashion, but it was in many ways a somber affair as the game took a backseat to the humanitarian disaster taking place in the region.
For Brent Haberly, the moment was particularly poignant, as in fall camp he had roomed with incoming JC transfer linebacker Blair Phillips, from Alexandria, LA. Blair was the prototypical middle linebacker, brought in from Mississippi Gulf Coast Junior College. The two roommates spent fall camp preparing for Houston, Brent teaching Blair the nuances of the Oregon defense, and before the game closely watching the carnage occurring in Blair’s home.
“Blair was a beast, he is your exact prototype mike (middle linebacker),” said Haberly. “He was an every down-type linebacker, and he moved well. He was the backbone of the defense, him at LB and JD Nelson in the secondary. But you can’t come into this defense and pick up day 1 and move forward, Blair was out there having to learn stuff from the start with things that took me three years to learn. He picked the game up mentally so quick, it helped him showcase his talents.”
Oregon jumped out to a 3-0 start on the season when USC came to Eugene, a record crowd and national television audience to see what kind of fight the plucky Ducks could put up. Oregon came out on fire, scoring multiple times to take a big lead, but when it looked like the Ducks had taken a 21-0 lead instead a phantom personal foul call on guard Palauni Ma’Sun erased a touchdown and the Ducks’ composure. Before halftime the USC Trojans that had been held in check all game blocked a field goal attempt, and suddenly the beast was awakened, as a 13-0 lead quickly turned into a landslide loss and 45 unanswered points, final score 45-13. Poor referee calls erased two Oregon touchdowns and a bad non-call gave USC another, the Ducks showing that they could not handle adversity when momentum swung the other way by way of on-field play or poor officiating.
“It gets frustrating seeing bad calls, but you have to take it out of the equation,” said Blair Phillips, now a teacher and football coach back in Alexandria, LA after a few years playing in the NFL and arena league. “There are times when you do everything right and bad calls will happen, it’s human error. Do your best and hopefully you’ll play well enough that the referees can’t change a game.”
While Oregon let a few bad calls get in their head and let USC dominate the second half, this learning experience would pay dividends a year later.
The Ducks would rebound from the USC loss, winning seven games in a row to close out the regular season to finish 10-1 and a chance for an at-large BCS bowl bid as the 5th ranked team in the country. However Oregon was not at full power, in the 8th game of the season against Arizona senior quarterback Kellen Clemens broke his leg and was lost for the remainder of the year, leaving the team in the hands of two young backups, Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf. The Arizona game was particularly harrowing as Dixon was knocked out of the contest with a concussion a few plays after Clemens’ injury, giving Leaf his first ever game experience with the score tied 21-21 in Tucson, AZ.
With wide receiver Garren Strong on the sidelines practicing taking snaps in case Leaf also suffered an injury, the offense didn’t do much, but a fluke play gave Oregon the victory and made for one night Brent Haberly the ultimate hero.
“It just happened, you can’t script that better,” Haberly remembers. “I don’t think it was because I had penetration, but next thing ya know I’ve got the ball in my hands somehow and (Willie) Tuitama didn’t make a tackle and luckily I didn’t get caught from behind.”
With the 28-21 victory, Oregon spent the remainder of the season rotating Dixon and Leaf at quarterback, with Dixon starting, Leaf typically taking the second quarter, and then riding the hot hand thereafter. The rotation was a stop-gap measure in the wake of losing the leadership and consistent play of Clemens, and it worked well enough to win out.
The Ducks had high hopes that they would be picked to be in the BCS with their only loss coming to a team that played for the national championship, but the Ducks were snubbed in favor of a 9-win Notre Dame team, leaving the Ducks to play in the Holiday Bowl. Their opponent oddly enough would be the Oklahoma Sooners, a team that had suffered two blowout losses to UCLA and Texas (the national champion over USC), and two close losses. At 7-4 Oklahoma’s season had been disappointing, but they were still very talented, and Adrian Peterson had become a full-fledged superstar.
For the new additions to Oregon’s arsenal like Stewart, Phillips, and freshman runningback Jeremiah Johnson, it was their first experience against Oklahoma. But for the rest of the team, memories of the trouncing suffered in Norman the year prior were still vivid.
“We probably should have been in a BCS game,” said Geoff Schwartz, “the rules as they are now we would have been in, but instead it was Notre Dame. It was a tough way to end the year because we thought we should have been elsewhere.”
“The guys were really frustrated that we didn’t get into a BCS game,” Phillips recalls. “We thought for sure that we were going to get in, but that was what we got so it was time to get ready for Oklahoma. Going into practice for the Holiday Bowl all the guys who had played the year before were informing me of all sorts of different things they’d learned, like don’t get caught up with their linemen because they’ll hold you. Just getting to a bowl game should have been good enough, but for us we were frustrated for not being in the BCS and wanted to take it out on the Sooners.”
Disappointed in their placement but thankful for an opportunity to revenge the embarrassing loss the year before, the two teams descended on San Diego, CA for the Holiday Bowl. There was familiarity between the two teams from the previous year’s affair, though Oregon had an all new look with a new spread offense, a pair of talented young runningbacks, and a dual-quarterback system due to the Clemens injury.
The Holiday Bowl was expecting fireworks, a game that traditionally had been back-and-forth battles with high scores and last-minute heroics. Instead, the rematch of Oregon and Oklahoma with the two much-hyped runningbacks in Peterson and Stewart was largely a defensive struggle. The battle in the trenches was intense, as each side featured powerful offensive and defensive lines resulting in a stalemate for much of the game.
“The reason we had such a good year, even when Kellen (Clemens) was playing we felt like we should get 3-and-outs every time,” said Blair Phillips. “We felt like it was always on our backs as the defense goes, we don’t want arena football style scores where we win but we’re not stopping anybody. Seeing the offense struggle ramped it up for us, it meant that the defense had to fight that much harder.”
The Ducks took the early advantage on the opening drive, thanks to a successful fake punt by punter Matt Dragich that moved the Ducks into scoring range.
A few plays later Oregon punched it in for a touchdown on a reverse run by wide receiver Demetrius Williams, thanks to big right tackle Geoff Schwartz’ block sealing the edge.
Oklahoma responded with a field goal drive, as Oregon stacked the line shutting down Adrian Peterson forcing Oklahoma to go to the air on the arm of Rhett Bomar. Everyone was expecting fireworks, but after the initial scores the game settled down into a stalemate, both offensive lines being destroyed by the superstar defensive tackles in the game, Ngata for Oregon and Dusty Dvoracek for Oklahoma.
Following Dixon’s touchdown drive, Brady Leaf did very little to move the chains while Dixon sat on the sidelines, and when Dixon did return whatever momentum earned from the opening drive had long been lost.
“Personally I’m not a big fan of a two-QB system,” said Schwartz. “At that time of the year, we had two guys who were unproven as they both kind of had the same skill-set, Dixon wasn’t really running much yet, so (Mike) Bellotti decided to go with one quarter splits, then ride the hot hand. At the time maybe I thought we shouldn’t have taken Dixon out after leading a touchdown drive, but we had game-planned that way.”
An interception by safety J.D. Nelson helped to keep the Sooners in check, but Oregon’s offensive line, in particular center Enoka Lucas, was having major difficulties dealing with Dvoracek and the rest of the tough Sooner defensive line, and behind them a superstar group of linebackers were keeping Oregon’s run game neutralized.
The field position battled continued, thanks in part to great special teams by both teams, highlighted by a 57-yard punt by Oregon punter Matt Dragich.
Into the second half Oregon maintained a 7-3 lead, but as the half wore on momentum flipped back to Oklahoma. Just as had occurred the previous year in Norman, as the game wore on Adrian Peterson got stronger, starting to rack up yards in bigger chunks. Peterson had earned the nickname ‘A.D.’ as in ‘All Day’, because as the games wore on Peterson always got stronger, and this night was no exception. The sooners scored two touchdowns, led largely by Bomar’s passing rather than Peterson’s running, as Ngata and company continued to stack the box preventing Peterson from getting loose.
In the 4th quarter though Peterson did start picking up yards. It helped of course that a low block to Haloti Ngata’s knees ended Ngata’s night.
“When you have a guy like Haloti Ngata that dominant up front, as a linebacker I took it for granted because I was always clean and could just go make tackles,” Blair Phillips remembers. “The minute he was gone then I’m fighting through blocks that weren’t there before that in the game. They blocked a couple different ways, and if Peterson gets a crease he’s going to get more yards than anybody.”
With Ngata out, Oklahoma began grinding out the yards between the tackles, with Peterson gashing the Ducks for big gains. Into the 4th quarter, Oklahoma led 17-7 and had moved to the 1 yard line about to put the game away with what everyone watching knew was coming, a Peterson dive to extend the lead.
Indeed Oklahoma called the dive, but as Peterson stretched for the touchdown on top of a pile of humanity twisting upside-down, Oregon linebacker Anthony Trucks ripped the ball out of Peterson’s hands, giving the Ducks another life.
“I remember I was on the weakside at the goal line and I shot the gap and grabbed Peterson’s legs,” said Blair Phillips. “He landed on top of the pile, and then I hear the crowd screaming and AT is celebrating with the ball in his hands. It was a great play at a big moment in the game because if they got a TD it would have been really tough to get out of that hole.”
The Ducks had new life, but despite the momentum could not move the chains and were forced to punt. An Oklahoma drive threatened, but a valiant defensive stand prevented the Sooners from extending their 10-point lead any further. The Ducks got the ball back with a little over six minutes left in the 4th quarter, and Brady Leaf took over for the ineffective Dixon to come up with something. At first the Oklahoma defense stood strong, but on 3rd down needing a play, Leaf found wide receiver James Finley for a 13 yard gain that moved the chains.
Following the catch Finley jumped up and screamed and pounded his chest, the catch and moment was a wake-up call, bringing the Ducks out of their comatose state. The energy had returned, it could be felt in the stands and the sidelines that Oregon could now move the ball, but three incompletions set up a 4th & 10 inside their own territory. Sensing that the Sooners would gamble and blitz to try to put the game away, Leaf threw a backside screen to senior runningback Terrence Whitehead who found some open space and picked up big yardage getting the first down and a whole lot more.
The Ducks drove down near the goal line, but the Oklahoma defense held the Ducks back, forcing a field goal attempt. But the Ducks had more tricks up their sleeve, and upon taking the snap, holder Brady Leaf stood up and threw the ball to tight end Tim Day. The ball sailed out of bounds incomplete, but a flag was thrown for pass interference. The pass was uncatchable, thrown way out of bounds, but the Ducks were given a gift with the referee thinking Day was interfered with enough to warrant the flag. Set up 1st and goal at the 1 yard line, Leaf threw a pass to Tim Day for a touchdown, cutting Oklahoma’s lead to just three, 17-14.
“There was a lot of excitement on the sidelines when Tim Day scored,” said Phillips. “After the frustration of plays before not being in our favor, now that the offense scored we felt like things were finally going our way, we made sure to stay focused on the task at hand to get the ball back to our offense.”
Oklahoma took the field with the crowd in a frenzy, sensing an Oregon comeback was inevitable. The Ducks stuffed Peterson on two run plays, setting up a third down pass that cornerback Justin Phinisee knocked away forcing a punt.
Oregon got the ball back, and the energy inside the stadium could be felt by all. It wasn’t if Oregon would score, but when. The Sooner defense that for the game seemed so unstoppable was now getting gouged, the team had found something on the arm of Brady Leaf and Oregon smelled blood.
“I remember the last drive I felt like we were going to win. There were a few times when I was at Oregon where I remember feeling that way, like we were rolling and knew we were going to win. The Cal game in 2007 was like that at the end, it just seemed like they couldn’t stop us.”
Following Oklahoma’s punt, Oregon again looked to Terrence Whitehead to make a big play. Leaf dropped a pass to Whitehead out of the backfield, and 35 yards later the Ducks were on the edge of field goal range.
With the clock ticking down, on 3rd & 14 Brady Leaf again found a way to make a big play. Using his feet to buy time in the backfield, Leaf scrambled around before finding freshman runningback Jeremiah Johnson who took it upfield for a first down.
If there was an aura of Oregon’s comeback in the air before, following the Johnson catch and run it was outright electricity in the air as the Ducks inched ever closer to a game-tying field goal and overtime or a game-winning touchdown.
40 seconds was all that remained with Oregon on the 20-yard line, well within field goal range. They could run it to set up for overtime, or test the defense a couple times to the endzone. The Ducks chose the latter, and bad luck struck. Leaf dropped back and threw to a wide open Demetrius Williams near the goal line, but Oklahoma linebacker Clint Ingram had drifted backwards after the snap and leaped, barely getting his fingertips on the ball but enough to bring it in for an interception.
“The thing about that last drive in the 2005 Holiday Bowl, we were handing the ball off and gashing them,” Haberly recalls. “It seemed so inevitable that we were going to score. Somebody taking a knee on you to end the game is the most helpless feeling in the world.”
“It felt like Oklahoma couldn’t stop our offense, we all just knew we were going to come down and punch it in,” said Phillips. “I wasn’t nervous at all, sitting there watching it knowing that this is our drive, thinking we’re about to make plays that will be on Sportscenter. But when Brady threw that ball it seemed like it was in slow motion, it slowed down right before it got to his (Clint Ingram) fingertips. I just kept thinking ‘is that going to get there? Is it open?’ It let all the wind out of the sails, everybody was so high ready to celebrate this touchdown. It was a great play by Ingram, but since he was a fellow linebacker, I know it was total luck that he came down with that ball.”
The Ducks looked like they would finally break the losing streak to Oklahoma, but due to a little bad luck, or a great play by Clint Ingram depending on perspective, had again left Oregon short. The series now stood at 0-6 with Oklahoma, with one game left to settle the score, the September 16th, 2006 rematch at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, OR. The Ducks would have nine months to think about the Holiday Bowl loss and prepare for one last shot to get the Sooners.
The season did come with an interesting post-script though, as after the Holiday Bowl it was revealed that Oklahoma had ineligible players participate in the game, their two stars Adrian Peterson and Holiday Bowl MVP Rhett Bomar, who had received illegal benefits getting paid for work they did not complete at a Norman, OK auto dealership. Oklahoma had to vacate the victory, though upon appeal oddly the NCAA decided to un-vacate the vacate decision, and changing the story to Peterson remaining eligible, while Bomar was dismissed from the team.
Years later in the USC scandal surrounding Reggie Bush’s recruitment, USC was forced to vacate all of their 2005 victories. This meant that Oregon’s two losses on the season were to teams that had to vacate the victories, leaving Oregon technically undefeated at 10-0.
continued in part 2, linked here: http://fishduck.com/2011/12/oklahoma-series-part-2-bad-calls-2006/