Part 1 of 2:
It was the evening of January 1, 2002. Oregon had just made history, completing a dream-come-true 11-1 record by winning the 2002 Fiesta Bowl in impressive fashion, knocking off heavily favored Colorado 38-16.
Prior to the game, all media attention went the direction of Colorado. Many believed that Colorado belonged in the national title game more than chosen Nebraska, despite two losses early in the season. Following the halftime report, ABC Broadcaster Brent Musburger asked colleague Gary Danielson “Why can’t Colorado convert 3rd and short; why can’t Colorado run the ball?” Danielson replied: “I think the quickness of this D-Line are giving them some problems. I think the game plan of putting the safeties up there and the linebackers back of a little; and the ability to have two corners be able to go man-to-man is somethings teams haven’t been able to do against them yet.” Musburger then commented, “Oregon has rushed for more yards than Colorado, I never would have believed that.” Just one of many ways Oregon was under rated and overlooked by so many all year.
All in all, under rated Oregon shocked the nation. It took a dismantling of a powerful Colorado team to finally get Oregon in the national spotlight. Prior to, the east coast biased NCAA followers were putting all their hopes on Nebraska as being the lone team that could perhaps contend with Miami. Many only justified Nebraska being given the national title shot by the BCS (despite voters picking Oregon #2). This logic proved folly. First the Colorado destruction of antagonistic Oregon daring to call the BCS cancer never formulated. Instead it was Oregon completely dismantling the Colorado machine that had seemed so unstoppable. The way that Oregon toyed with Colorado throughout the game dominating them in every facet made many in the media the next day declare that Oregon should be co-national champions regardless of how the Miami-Nebraska game finished, their revisionist history glossing over the fact that just 24 hours earlier nearly all of the national media predicted a Colorado victory over the Ducks and outcry that it should have been Colorado facing Miami for the title… oops.
So the national championship game came to the Rose Bowl, and by halftime it was effectively over. With Mike Bellotti now on the sidelines joining the broadcast team while wearing a Nebraska hat in support hoping that a Cornhuskers win would give Oregon a split title, it was no contest. Nebraska stood no chance with their antiquated triple option offense against the overwhelming talent of Miami. So badly was the beat down by Miami, that in the off-season legendary Nebraska head coach Tom Osborne left the program, and the Cornhuskers scrapped their triple option offense that had led them to championships and Big-12 dominance for decades. Bill Callahan, the recently fired head coach of the Oakland Raiders, was brought in to revamp the offense and bring Nebraska into 21st century football with a pass-happy attack…there would be a lot of growing pains, with Callahan eventually fired and Nebraska only just recently returning to credibility while also re-implementing a run-first offense reminiscent of their traditional triple option attack.
Thanks to the “BS-BCS” (as described by former Athletic Director Bill Moos,) Oregon was overlooked when the national championship was awarded (as has happened since in 2004, 2007, 2009, and recently to Oklahoma State.) However, every Oregon fan, player, and coach fondly remembers the Fiesta Bowl as such a special moment in Oregon history instead of in negative fashion. Looking at the glass as half full, Oregon completed its highest final season ranking to date, and would be the only one-loss team in the nation after Illinois and Maryland lost their bowl games. Sitting at 11-1 to Miami’s 12-0, Oregon fans considered their beloved Ducks the “National Champion Runner-up” and the excitement of such a special year lingered through the off season and for many years to come.
Memories with Steve Smith:
2001 Oregon Senior Cornerback Steve Smith had just completed his career at Oregon in most impressive fashion, recording three interceptions, all at crucial times in the game. All three of Smith’s interceptions led to Oregon points. Smith’s first interception came as Oregon led 14-7 in the second quarter. Colorado Quarterback Bobby Pesavento threw from his own territory to the Oregon 35, where Smith was there to make the pick and return midfield. Smith (the unsung hero of the drive) was fully to thank for Oregon’s soon-to-come score, giving Oregon the momentum swing and a short field to work with. On offense, Harrington and company used the momentum to march down field and score their third touchdown of the game out of Smith’s interception to make it a two-score lead at 21-7. Late in the third quarter, Oregon had remained solid, but the score remained 21-7. All that would change again off Steve Smith’s second interception. Colorado was pinned in their own territory and faced 3rd and 15 after a Rashad Bauman sack. Pesavento threw deep into coverage, where Smith stood to make the huge interception. Following Smith’s interception late in the third quarter, Oregon began to pound it to Colorado again. Harrington led a drive capped by a Jared Siegel Field Goal, a career-long 47 yard kick. In the fourth quarter, Smith’s third and final interception gave Oregon the momentum to score their fifth and final touchdown of the game. Harrington hit Justin Peelle downfield in the red zone, followed by a touchdown to Peelle to seal the deal for Oregon.
A veteran defender, Smith played a huge role in Oregon’s successful defense during the Fiesta Bowl year by leading Oregon in interceptions with a total of nine all year. Smith’s outstanding Fiesta Bowl performance earned him the Defensive MVP Award. Ten years later, Smith recalls the intensity of the game. Questions and Answers with Smith:
Q.) What is your favorite memory of the hype/preparation leading up to the Fiesta Bowl?
Media Day. Since both teams were there, we got to meet the other team. We got to mingle, sit side-to-side, etc. Because we had that mindset that we were going to win, there was lots of tension for defense, and we strived off that stuff.
Q.) What was the secret of your success?
A.) I was a study-holic. That’s all I did was study film. I wasn’t the most athletic, never the fastest player, etc. For me, to keep up wth athletic guys, I had to know how they aligned, the inside numbers, outside numbers, and how they’d do things. Basically, I learned by process of elimination. It just prepared me, straight up. Also, one thing probably no one knows, I was room mates with Rashad Bauman. Being in the same household, I didn’t want him to overshadow me. This was my roommate, I had to keep up, and my best way was to study film! When I got to the league, it wasn’t the same!! The league has grown men, much faster and talented, all the film studying in the world makes no difference!
Q.) What would you tell the average fan about your team that they may not know about?
A.) We had a mindset heading into the big game. We barely even had to practice that week. Our mindset was they (the BCS) gypped us. Therefore, no matter who was in our way, we were making a statement. It was straight up–our mindset. We were going to kick anyone’s butt we were matched up against, because they didn’t pick us for that match up (Rose Bowl). When they picked CU for us to play, we knew they had no true passing threats (other than Daniel Graham) and beat opponents mainly on the ground.) They played into the run, we knew we could stop the run. We won that for sure.
Q.) How did the coaching staff best prepare you for the big game?
A.) They put us in situations to win. The game plan isn’t complicated, but it’s a plan to win. They put in a situation to play fast, that was by far the best thing about our coaching staff. Aliotti worked the situation to win, differing each week. We have no one set thing, changing each week helped. Their philosophy was to run, Alitoi’s was to stop the run, we knew what they were doing.
Q.) As for the game, what was the most intense moment about the 2002 Fiesta Bowl?
A.) Probably pregame warm ups. We went into whole 10 days with a mindset. Finally, here it was. Are we going to talk the talk, or walk the walk? I can remember I was doing my workouts extra hard that day in pregame warm ups, knowing it would be battle. When they let the Buffalo (mascot) out and ran him across the field, that intensified things; and with all the attention on him, we knew we had to take the spotlight away.
Q.) How did your interceptions change the chemistry (and which one most of all?)
A.) All three came at different times and had different meaning. The first interception was most crucial. The game was tied 7-7 on third and 10. It was at a crucial time. It sparked Joey (then we took the lead on Joey’s pass to Parker). We knew we had this mindset, and we could see it coming. When I got my next one, we went down and scored again to widen lead. When I got my third, they had just switched quarterbacks. Remembering all three picks: He threw his first pass, it and fell right in my hands. We were stuffing the run, so they had to throw. That was only their third throw, they found we could cover too. The second one was the hardest to make. The third solidified it. It was over.
Q.) What was the most unique about the 2002 Fiesta Bowl Victory?
A.) We downed the hype that they were going to kill us. We silenced critics, and had chance to be co-champs. We didn’t get stomped like they said, we showed ourselves. We had talked the talked, then walked the walked. It was like “I told you” they should have put us in that national champion. It wasn’t an excitement that we could play that well (like Texas win) it was more like a proving a point.
Q.) What was it like to have such a special final game as a Duck, making three interceptions?
A.) It felt great! It was a picture perfect way to go out to be defensive MVP. It was awesome, and I couldn’t ask for a better ending. It was a dream come true, and had opportunity to go to next level. I’m happy how it all turned out. I guess it didn’t define my career, but it made it so people could remember me in such a memorable game. My defining moment was USC, but to go out with three picks like the USC game and go out defensive MVP was awesome.
Q.) In your memory, what play sticks out the most?
A.) Maurice Morris!! That damn run!! That run was like ‘we could do anything.’ After my second pick. It was another moment in the game ‘here we go, we’re running.’
Q.) What was the morale of the team like following the victory?
A.) Our morale was big, obviously granted. When it all settled down, the morale was tight. That’s all I miss was the comradare with the boys in the locker room . Nothing else compares with that. Afer all the hard work. Words can’t describe how you feel for your brother, it’s one of those feelings where you had to be there to truly understand. Our senior class changed the game, we were tight, we started a new wheel at Oregon (summer workouts.) To see program now staying around in the summer, much tighter-knit. It’s crazy to see how it has evolved. People look at you like you’re crazy if you don’t wanna come to Oregon. 15 years ago, you never would have thought Eugene was place to be!!
Q.) What was it like to be so overlooked after Miami shut down Nebraska?
A.) In the media was messed up, but our team knew where we stood. Anyone who played Division I knew where we stood. It wasn’t just Oregon, more fans out there gave us credit. I got letters from Ohio State fans and other teams to compliment my work and express how overlooked we were. Everyone knew where we stood, feeling we belonged there. But, everything happens for a reason–look at Oregon now. Could we have handled the hype of national championship? I don’t know. I wish I could have been one to hold that trophy. But, everything happens for a reason, and I’m a firm believer–we’re going to get there one day. We wish it had been us, but to just be lucky that we were in the position we were to make Oregon history was good enough for us.
Q.) What was the emotion like to send off the seniors (at least with the victory if not the bowl game?)
A.) It was cool. We finally accomplished what we came to do. I came in as part of the 1997 recruiting class, which at the time was the best in Oregon history. We who came in 1997 came to be best in Oregon Football history, and we did. Call me biased, but I still think we’re the best. It was bittersweet to end. Granted, no one wanted it to be over with, but it was already, we were tight as a bone. So, to be together, a tight-knit group, for the last time at a moment like that was very special.
Q.) With the season now over, what happened next once everyone got back to Eugene?
A.) It was wrap. Everyone went their own separate ways. Fiesta Bowl was the last time as a team that we hung out. You have your own selection you keep in contact with, before Facebook and social networking! This senior class that just finished (2011) has it easier to keep in contact than us at the time. I had my own training reginime, family to tend to, etc. So, seniors went their own ways as the younger guys proceeded to continue careers.
Q.) What was the reaction around campus?
A.) It was tight. Spotlight was on us at at basketball games and in class. That stuff is always nice to be recognized.
“‘Twas Fiesta Bowl Gameday.” Posted online, 2002:
‘Twas Fiesta Bowl Gameday, and all through Eugene,
The Duck fans were shouting “Go Get ‘Em Big Green!”
The Buffaloes were huddled ‘Round Coach Gary Barnett,
In hopes that the Ducks would and stay home and forget.
And I in my Duck cap with a bright yellow bill,
Entered Sun Devil Stadium all pumped for a thrill.
The Ducks and the Buffaloes came out on the field,
Each team determined that they wouldn’t yield.
The Buffs took the lead, 7-0 to start
With the nation all saying they’d dagger the Ducks’ heart.
But with Harrington there so lively and quick,
We knew in a moment the Ducks were our pick!
Captain Comeback threw to Howry for a score to tie,
And the defense shut down the Buffs stout offense to die.
More rapid than eagles, our team took the lead…
With Harrington’s skill and Parker’s fast speed.
The look in their eye and the set of their head,
soon led us to know we had nothing to dread
They jumped to the line as the Buffs called their play…
But from Seth, Keith, and Wesly–they could not get away!
Coach Bellotti risked a smile, the fans were so wired…
The team heard our roar and it got them inspired.
On Joey, on Justin, On Keenan, on Josh;
Keep making those touchdowns, we’ll whip ‘em by gosh!
Then hand it to Onterrio, or Maurice and the rest;
We’ll see in a moment who’s really the best!
‘Twas 21-7 half time, Onterrio had scored;
The game was in our hands as I looked at the board.
When what to my wondering eyes should appear…
but there was our defense, all decked out in their gear.
Maurice had a touchdown from fifty yards out,
He rolled over defenders and scored to make them pout
Seigel’s kick split the uprights, the field goal was good;
Ducks led 31-7, and the Duck fans all stood.
Steve Smith was our hero on defense all day,
His three interceptions took their ego away
Then Peelle scored our final touchdown, to lead 38-seven;
Offense had put the clutch down, Duck fans were in heaven
The route had been done, the celebration was on;
But all Oregon faithful, knew they would all along
Bellotti took the trophy, Harrington MVP
And the fans cheered and shouted, “we’re the champions, finally!”
-To Be Continued…