Tempe, Arizona: Tuesday, January 1, 2002; A day Oregon fans would long remember. Their beloved Ducks were completing a very special year with an appearance in the Fiesta Bowl, the Pac-10 Championship site.
Oregon’s four Senior Captains Wes Mallard, Steve Smith, Justin Peelle, and Joey Harrington took midfield to greet and shake hands with Colorado’s captains. Colorado won the coin toss, electing to take the ball immediately (highly unusual for Colorado at the time, deferring all year long when the toss went in their favor.) With that, the teams took the field, and the game Oregon and the entire nation waited so long for was finally on in front of a national television audience on ABC.
Freshman Jared Siegel teed up the ball and kicked it deep. With that, the game was finally underway. Colorado returned the ball to their own 25, and their offense came out all fired up for the first play from scrimmage. Runningback Courtlen Johnson busted right up the middle through his powerful line for a gain of nine. Right off the bat, many thought Colorado was about to roll all over Oregon. Colorado QB Bobby Pesavento then completed his first pass, a strike to midfield. From there, Oregon began to show their defensive abilities when needed most. Johnson attempted a run, but was stopped by the line for a gain of only one. On second down, Oregon Defensive End Darrell Wright pressured Pesavento, forcing him to throw the ball away. On third and nine, Pesavento had an open receiver who appeared to have the catch. However, Oregon’s reserve Safety Gary McGraw (who started in place of starting-ineligible Keith Lewis) made a remarkable pass breakup, batting the ball right out of the receiver’s hands to force a fourth down situation. As they had all year, Oregon’s defense came through when needed the most by foiling Colorado’s first drive and forcing Colorado to punt.
Oregon would start at it’s own 20 following a touchback. The first play pass fell incomplete, the second down run by Maurice Morris was for eight yards, and Oregon faced third down. Then-Offensive Coordinator Jeff Tedford called for a double tight end set, as George Wrighster came in at one end along with Justin Peelle at the other. Joey Harrington completed his first pass of the game to George Wrighster, who fought his way forward for extra yards and enough for the first down to earn the third down conversion. From their own 30, Harrington and company were unable to do anything and were forced to punt. Punter Jose Arroyo spotted Colorado at their own 30.
Oregon’s defense came alive again on Colorado’s second series. It was second and only three to go, when Colorado attempted a sweep run to the right. Oregon’s co-captain and leading tackler Wes Mallard was there to greet him at the sidelines for no gain. It appeared Oregon was on the brink of stopping the Buffaloes, but Tight End Daniel Graham (son of Oregon Great Tom Graham) caught a short pass just over the line to convert the third down. From there, Colorado was off to business. Just as many suspected, Colorado marched right down field with their high powered offense. Pesavento was blitzed, when he got rid of the ball just in time, finding Courtlen Johnson who made a one-handed reception and cut back downfield to get Colorado into the red zone. Johnson then got the ball at the 20 and ran up the middle with help from his line to make it as far as the five yard line. Johnson then ran three times up to the one, when all-conference Fullback Brandon Drumm was given a quick handoff to plow his way into the end zone for the first score of the game. 7-0, Colorado.
From there, very few gave Oregon any chance. Favored Colorado appeared on a role, and many expected Oregon to be stomped all over for the remainder of the game. Only the Oregon Faithful knew what their beloved Ducks were truly capable of doing, and would sit back to watch one of the greatest performances in Oregon history from there.
From their own 20, Oregon faced a daunting task of matching Colorado’s drive for the score. With Joey Harrington at the reins, Oregon came out fired up and prepared to meet that challenge. Onterrio Smith was called on first, running through for a few yards. On only the second play, Harrington threw a short strike to Samie Parker, who used his speed (being the second-fastest NCAA Football player) to turn a short play into a big play. Parker would sprint to midfield and give Oregon a much-needed spark with a fresh set of downs at midfield. From the Colorado 46, Harrington threw a strike directly to Jason Willis for another fresh set of downs at the Colorado 25. Two plays later, Smith took the handoff and appeared to have a gain, but he was met in the backfield as the Buffalo defender made an outstanding shoe-string tackle to prevent anything big and face a third down situation. As always, Harrington stayed cool under pressure, and was able to come up big for Oregon in an adverse situation. On third and 13, Harrington rolled back to pass and threw a perfect strike to Keenan Howry as he ran down the middle. Howry (also known to come up big for Oregon when needed most) used his speed and top-notch hands the rest of the way, making a fake cut to the outside on the pass route, then going directly down the middle, and making the catch right beyond the goal line to be wide open in the end zone. Howry had the easy touchdown, and Oregon was on the board. Jared Siegel’s PAT would tie the game for Oregon, and they would never look back. 7-7, tie.
On Colorado’s ensuing drive, a penalty on Oregon moved the ball to midfield. However, Oregon’s defense held strong from there. Steve Smith nearly made an interception in traffic, but the pass fell incomplete. On third down, Colorado attempted a run. Freshman Igor Olshanksy came through big for Oregon, making a huge stop by grabbing Johnson directly after the handoff to bring him down for a huge loss and force a punt. Oregon received the ball deep in their own territory, but the Ducks were unable to make anything of it, going three-and-out and having to punt. That would end the first quarter with the game tied, 7-7.
A bad punt gave Colorado great field position at midfield. From there, many thought the Ducks were in big trouble. The defense, however, was very positive and confident, which would show in two huge plays. On second down, Colorado’s Johnson appeared to be running through a gap for a first down. However, he was greeted by Linebacker David Moretti, who made a terrific tackle from behind to force a Third and 2. It appeared easy behind Colorado’s talented Offensive Line, but many had failed to consider the talented and gifted 6 foot 6/300 LB Olshanksy. On third down, Olshansky came through big for Oregon again, as Johnson ran right into his line, but was greeted by Olshanksy and linebacker Kevin Mitchell who shook off a Colorado blocker to make the tackle. Colorado would be forced to punt, and would give Oregon great opportunity.
Oregon had the ball and the momentum at their own 22. On the very first play, Harrington and Parker teamed up for one of the greatest plays of the year. Samie Parker used his olympic speed to outrace his defenders downfield. Harrington, with plenty of time and space to throw, delivered a perfect home-run strike to Parker in stride. Parker made the catch right at the Colorado 35, and used his speed the rest of the way to go untouched into the end zone and give Oregon its first lead of the ball game. The 78 yard touchdown pass was the longest of the season, and would be a huge momentum shifter in the game. 14-7, Oregon.
Oregon pinned Colorado deep in their own territory, then stopped them on third and 1 to force another punt. Oregon got the ball again, and began to move the ball forward yet again. On third and 3 from the 40, Harrington threw a strike to Howry at his own 40 for a fresh set of downs. Jason Willis then came through big again for Oregon, catching a pass at the 40 and slipping away from a defender to get to midfield for another first down. From midfield, Oregon began to move the ball at-will. Maurice Morris took the handoff on the draw play, slipping through several defenders and running to the right for nearly 20 yards into Colorado territory to the 32. On third down, Harrington threw a perfect strike to Parker in the end zone. The Colorado defender made a remarkable play to slightly deflect the ball and delay the catch, making it so Parker did not catch the ball until he was out of bounds. On fourth down, Oregon elected to have Harrington fake a conversion and punt. Harrington’s only punt of his collegian carreer was off a high snap and with his left foot, which would be a shanker for only 19 yards.
Colorado took possession, but it did not last long. After one first-down conversion from the 20 to the 30, Colorado faced third and 10. Pesavento went long to a receiver in Oregon territory, but failed to consider the powerful Steve Smith in coverage. Smith led Oregon in interceptions all year, and added to the list in the process by intercepting the ball at the Oregon 35 and returning to midfield. The Ducks took full advantage of their short field. Onterrio Smith ran to the 43, and Harrington hit Parker at the 35 for another first down. Two plays later, Smith slithered through several wannabe tacklers to make his way to the 22. On first down, Justin Peelle had his first catch of the day (in a stadium where he also had a career day during his previous trip) and did not stop until he was well into the red zone and Oregon had another fresh set of downs at the 10. Onterrio Smith, the star of the drive, then took the handoff to get to the five before being brought down. On the very next play, Smith would finish the job. Harrington rolled back, threw the shovel pass to Smith at the 5, and Smith easily walked in untouched to give Oregon a two-score lead. 21-7, Oregon.
Steve Smith (the unsung hero of the drive) was fully to thank for Oregon’s score, giving them all of the momentum and a short field to work with. On the next possession, deflated Colorado managed nothing, going three-and-out on three incomplete passes well defended by Oregon. It was then late in the second quarter. Oregon hoped for one more score as Harrington and company moved the ball, but Harrington threw his first interception of the game at the Colorado 30. With less than thirty seconds to play, Colorado attempted to make it a one-possession game. On third down, Colorado appeared to be headed towards a score as a completion got the ball downfield and into field goal range. However, a holding call brought it back, and the Buffaloes were unable to do anything from there. The first half was in the books, Oregon dominating in all categories. 21-7, Oregon; halftime.
First half facts and statistics:
-Colorado gained only 61 yards rushing, far short of their 229 average
-Joey Harrington threw for 240 yards in the first half
-Samie Parker led the way receiving: ten passes thrown to from Harrington, six completed, 145 yards, 1 touchdown
-Harrington threw three first-half touchdowns
-Harrington completed 10/13 passes down the middle for 162 yards and 2 touchdowns
-Harrington threw to six different receivers in the first half alone
Colorado’s plan to immediately ram it down Oregon’s throat at the beginning backfired. They did not defer to the second half as usual, therefore giving Oregon the ball to begin the second half. Oregon took the kickoff, but was pinned at their own 10 following a penalty. As they had all year, Harrington and company quickly overcame adversity. Harrington quickly found the on-fire Parker at the 25 for a first down to get them out of the shadow of their own end zone. Several plays later, Oregon faced another third down. Harrington rolled back, finding Tight End Justin Peelle down the sidelines for the conversion. The senior captain Peelle did the rest, making his way to midfield to give Oregon another first down. On the very next play, one of the most amazing and memorable offensive plays in Oregon history took place. Tailback Maurice Morris took the handoff and went running to his right. Morris ran to daylight, cut the corner quickly, and outraced his defenders down the sidelines to pass the first down mark. Morris then raced for more yards, when he met his defenders at the 25. The defensive backs slowed him at the 25, and he fought forward before losing his balance while meeting a tackler at the 20. Most thought Morris was down and gave up. However, the referee watched closely, and noticed that Morris had only sat on top of his defender and put only his hand to the ground. Morris was one of the few who knew he was not down, as he quickly stood up and raced forward approximately 20 more yards for the end zone. By the time the defenders had realized no signals or whistles had blown the play dead, it was far too late, Morris was way ahead of anyone, and into the end zone for one of the greatest plays of the year. 28-7, Oregon.
Oregon had proved their point to open the second half, going only six plays and 90 yards for the score to give them a comfortable 28-7 lead. As any true NCAA Football fan knows, no lead is a safe lead in College Football at or shortly after halftime.
Oregon knew they still had the second half to defend their lead, and Colorado was very fired up on the ensuing drive. Colorado appeared to be on the verge of a comeback. A controversial pass interference call on Rashad Bauman gave Colorado a first down at midfield, which Mike Bellotti was unusually fired up and yelling to the referees about (after Bauman made minimal contact and the player appeared to have fallen on his own.) However, Colorado got the call in their favor. Colorado would then complete a first down to the Oregon 25 from Pesavento to Daniel Graham. On the very next play, everyone thought Colorado was right back in the game. Pesavento stepped forward with plenty of room to throw, and found his receiver wide open ten yards out who raced untouched into the end zone. However, the play was ruled an illegal forward pass and would come back to nullify the score. The call was controversial, as Pesavento was so close to the original line of scrimmage, it was very hard to tell whether or not he had overstepped (especially given he stepped as he threw.) It was not even called by the line judge, rather the head referee. Regardless, the call stood, and Colorado lost momentum as the following pass fell incomplete on Third and 14. Colorado would have to settle for a 47 yard field goal, but would come up completely empty as the kick sailed wide left.
Oregon had all the momentum from there and never looked back. On the very first play, Harrington hit Fullback Josh Line, who ran his way forward beyond midfield for a first down and a gain of 16. In the process, Harrington would eclipse the 300 yard mark. Oregon was unable to do anything from midfield and forced to punt. On Colorado’s ensuing possession, Pesavento was stuffed huge when Rashad Bauman delivered one of the few sacks of his career, blitzing completely unblocked and knocking Pesanvento right down on one of the greatest hits of the year. On third down, Colorado then became 0/3 on each attempt; as Pesavento hit his receiver right on the money, but it was dropped. Colorado converted on fourth and one, but managed little else from there. Bauman nearly had another interception deep down field on first down, followed by a major sack by Kevin Mitchell on second down for a loss of five. On third and 15, Pesavento threw into double coverage and was intercepted by Steve Smith again. Harrington and company took over as fired up as ever.
Following Smith’s interception late in the third quarter, Oregon began to pound it to Colorado again. Harrington converted another third down strike to Justin Peelle around the 40. Three plays later, another third down was converted at midfield as Harrington put the ball in the hands of Samie Parker yet again. With that, the third quarter would conclude with Oregon only one quarter away from one of their greatest wins in history. 28-7, Oregon; to end the third quarter.
Oregon continued its drive from midfield to begin the final quarter. Harrington found the under rated receiver Jason Willis for another big gain and a first down into Oregon territory. Harrington would misfire on a few routes to bring up fourth down. Freshman Kicker Jared Siegel had been hot all year, and added to his hot-streak by connecting on a career-long 47 yard attempt to break his 45 yard record and extend Oregon’s lead by three. 31-7, Oregon.
Completely deflated, Colorado took the kickoff and managed nothing. Colorado sent in a backup QB to replace Pesavento. On his very first play from the 20, the high-thrown ball was tipped by the potential receiver, and sailed right down into the hands of the one-and-only… STEVE SMITH! Smith’s third interception on the day gave Oregon great field position from the Colorado 25. Joey Harrington and company were well prepared to make a statement from there. Harrington found Justin Peelle at the ten, who fought his way for five extra yards before it took a team of five black jerseys to bring him down. One thing Peelle was renowned for was completing what he started at Sun Devil Stadium. Just as he did against Arizona State the year before, Peelle finished the job after falling just short of a touchdown. Two plays later, Peelle was open in the end zone as Harrington was pressured, and Peelle hauled in the pass to complete the touchdown. 38-7 Oregon, with ten minutes remaining in the game.
At that point, Oregon had the game well under control. The following drive was filled with penalties on both teams. Colorado had their chances, but were pushed back by penalties. Oregon appeared to make a stop, but a penalty gave Colorado a first down. Colorado would eventually find their way into Oregon territory, but were held on third down, and would have to settle for a field goal after a sloppy five-minute drive. They were able to connect this time, and finally cracked the score board for the first time since the first quarter. 38-10, Oregon, with only five minutes remaining.
Oregon received the kickoff and took over possession. Many Oregon fans hoped their Ducks would run up the score to prove a point, but Coach Mike Bellotti believed in morals and ethics, feeling his team had already proved its worthiness among the nation’s best of 2001. Oregon played very conservative, Josh Line carried the ball for the semi-final time in his collegian career (one of his very few caries of 2001) for a first down, and Oregon held onto the ball to milk the clock until a fourth down brought on a punting situation with three minutes to play.
Colorado would take possession one final time. On fourth down, Oregon pulled its defensive starters to a huge ovation, and Colorado converted against the backups. From there, Colorado was able to drive downfield in the final minutes and score a meaningless touchdown by star Daniel Graham with 18 seconds to play; but of course it was too late for a comeback at that point. The PAT failed, and Oregon was prepared to celebrate its biggest win in school history up to that point. 38-16, Oregon.
With only 18 seconds to play, the celebration was on. Harrington and most of Oregon’s starters put on their “Fiesta Bowl Champions” T-shirts, as the backups went out to take the knee and run the clock out. Josh Line carried the ball for the final time of the season/his career; and Jason Fife would go to one knee on the final snap to end the game and begin a huge celebration of the triumph.
The improbable at the most opportune time had come true for Oregon. An underdog from day one, Oregon proved every naysayer wrong by putting on an outstanding show for a national television audience. Eugene was delirious to see their beloved Ducks pull off such a huge win. A well-deserved and hard-earned victory belonged to an amazing Oregon team with lots of talent and heart, proving themselves true national title contenders in that memorable 2001 season. Oregon would then wait to hope for a Nebraska victory over Miami to earn its rightful share of that national title. Final Score: Oregon 38, Colorado 16.
Part 2: Reactions and Postgame… To be continued