A Step Away From College Football’s Elite
When College Football fans list off the best games in recent history, it usually starts with the USC-Texas National Championship matchup in the ’05-’06 season, the OU-Boise State game, or the Texas Tech-Texas matchup in Lubbock. All, “usual suspects,” when it comes to instant classics, and are definitely deserving of their ranking, but there is one game from the 1998 season that stands out, and is just as memorable. Oregon is no stranger to last-minute heroics and heartbreaks, one of the absolute best of these came that year, at the Rose Bowl against UCLA.
It’s strange to think that just under 14 years ago, UCLA was the best team, by far, in the conference, and consistently in the top five in the nation. With the conference’s most dominant quarterback in recent history in Cade McNown (a first round draft pick by the Chicago Bears), a solid offensive line, and an electric receiving corps led by Danny Farmer; there was little doubt that the Bruins could put up points in a hurry.
However, the same could be said of Oregon that year. The Ducks, similar to today’s teams under Chip Kelly, had the top-ranked offense in the nation. Led by Akili Smith and Reuben Droughns, the Ducks were steam-rolling opponents. Just a week before, the Ducks put up 51 points on WSU, and 63 on Stanford before that. Under Bellotti, Oregon’s pro-set offense had always put up good numbers, the Ducks had always had good offensive production, but now, they had an unprecedented amount of success in both points and yardage. How times have changed, right?
The undefeated Ducks were 5-0, and had already turned heads in week one with their beatdown of Nick Saban’s Michigan State team, leading to their rise in the national rankings. After dismissing their early conference foes, the Ducks were on a collision course with the second-ranked Bruins in Pasadena. Having won 14 straight games before meeting with the Ducks, UCLA came in big favorites, at -10.5.
Call that line mysterious. Oregon was, again, the top-ranked scoring offense in the PAC-10, while UCLA was second. In passing, Ducks were second, Bruins came third. Oregon was averaging 50.6 points per game, second in the nation, UCLA averaged 48 points, third overall.
Defense was another story for UCLA, though. Believe it or not, the long-tenured defensive coordinator at Oregon, Nick Aliotti, wasn’t wearing green and yellow, but blue and gold. When asked on how to prepare for Oregon, he simply responded, “Pray.”
Some Bruins took the Oregon game as an opportunity to make a statement, “If we do a great job against Oregon, that puts [the] UCLA defense on the map,” linebacker Ryan Nece said.
The Ducks defense, already overmatched by the juggernaut Bruin offense, and missing their star linebacker Peter Sirmon, who sat out the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle, still entered with the best scoring and total defense in the conference.
Needless to say, both defenses faced humungous tasks. The table was set, with College Gameday appearing live on the West coast for the very first time, let alone the first Gameday to ever cover an Oregon game. Just as the California sun passed its peak in the sky, what would prove to become every bit worth the hype, one of the best college football games in history began.
UCLA didn’t miss the memo about the expected shootout, and started scoring right away. McNown and DeShaun Foster hooked up for a 51-yard touchdown throw to give the Bruins the early lead 7-0. The Oregon defense held the Bruins for as long as they could, while the Duck offense tried to gain some traction. It was obvious from the get-go, though, that this would be far from a defensive struggle.
Oregon’s defense did as much as they could against UCLA’s offensive machine, but it didn’t take long until Foster scored again from four yards out, extending the lead to 14-0 UCLA.
Desperate to avoid a blowout, but feeling the game starting to slip away and unable to find consistency early on, Smith finally rallied the Duck offense down into Bruin territory. A patient Smith found tight end Jed Weaver on a corner route to stop the bleeding a bit, and just like that, the Ducks were on the board. 14-7 UCLA.
McNown didn’t even want to contemplate a potential comeback, and quickly responded, leading the Bruins down inside the Oregon 10 yard line. Just when UCLA was about to go up by 14 again, Leie Sualua made a huge stop in the backfield, forcing the Bruins to settle for a field goal. 17-7 UCLA.
Then the nightmare of needing to play a flawless game to compete head-to-head with the Bruins started to become a reality. If UCLA’s defense could make stops, and its offense could dominate the smaller Oregon defensive line, then things were going to get ugly for the Ducks. Another long, methodical drive out of the UCLA offense led to a Danny Farmer touchdown from McNown. 24-7 UCLA.
What was expected to be a neck-and-neck battle was turning into a laugher by halftime, the game that in the country’s eyes would prove that despite Oregon leading in many ways statistically, UCLA was still the most dominant team on the West coast.
After stopping the Ducks another time, the Bruins put another drive together to get down into the Oregon red zone again. If UCLA scored, they would go up by 24 points before the half, a daunting task to overcome even for Oregon’s prolific offense.
Saul Patu had something else in mind. A screen pass to the highly regarded recruit Brian Poli-Dixon went awry, and Patu picked the ball off, returning it as far as he could, ending the Bruin threat.
Sensing the need for urgency, the high-flying Ducks kicked into gear, and the comeback was on. In a flash, Smith led the Ducks down to the 3 yard-line. Droughns had already fumbled the ball away earlier in the game, an ominous sign of things to come in a game where every possession counted, so the Ducks decided to take a different route. With only seven seconds left in the half, Akili Smith faked the handoff, and rolled out trying to find a receiver. He faked a throw, faked another, and almost as if it was scripted, pulled the ball down, and stepped into the end-zone. 24-14 UCLA.
Suddenly, a seemingly insurmountable deficit seemed practical to overcome. Oregon showed signs of life. The Ducks had a hope going in to halftime.
Taking Coach Bellotti’s heartfelt halftime speech to heart, the once porous Oregon defense suddenly were stifling UCLA, playing inspired football enthused by the signs of life from the Duck offense. Midway through the 3rd, the Ducks forced UCLA into a crucial third down situation inside of Oregon territory. McNown dropped back, looking as poised as ever, and threw the ball right over the middle. That poise turned to panic quickly, as the ball hit off of the UCLA receiver Brad Melsby’s hands, and Tamani Joiner snagged the fluttering pigskin. He took off, with a flock of Ducks leading the way for him down the far sideline. Joiner broke free from several retreating defenders, but was tripped up inside of the Bruin 20.
The long return made everything more believable, and just after, Reuben Droughns stepped in for an eight yard touchdown run. There was a bit of a stir in the Rose Bowl; what appeared to be an easy cruise to a Bruin victory suddenly was anybody’s ball game. Visions of the 1970 miracle comeback by Oregon were running through the Bruin faithful’s memories, when Oregon overcame a 40-24 deficit late in the 4th quarter to win 41-40. Midway through the third quarter, it was back to a one score game: 24-21 UCLA.
After stopping the Bruins on third down on the following drive, Droughns and Smith tag-teamed a quick drive deep into UCLA territory. The Bruin defense responded, though, and prevented the Ducks from taking their first lead in the game, holding them to a game-tying field goal: 24-24.
On the following drive, one of the strangest things to ever happen in college football occurred:
Almost as if he was fed up with being tied with the Ducks, McNown just let-’er-rip, and blew chunks all over the 50 yard line. While the veteran had to step out, and the drive ended, McNown’s odd moment under center was not only notable for its comedic moment of levity, but immediately after, McNown started feeling better, and playing better too. It would prove to perhaps be the best thing that could have happened to the Bruins. Now that the Ducks had the ball back, they gained their first chance to take the lead.
As Oregon approached midfield, Droughns decided to strike again. A quick run off tackle put the Ducks deep into Bruin territory yet again.
On the very next play, Akili Smith faked the handoff, then darted the ball down field to Tony Hartley. Hartley split two defenders and leaped into the endzone. Suddenly, the Ducks were in front for the first time. 31-24 Oregon.
UCLA wasn’t going to go down without a fight, however. McNown, who had started off very sharp but turned sporadic as the game progressed, now looked rejuvenated once free of his stomach contents.. He led the Bruins back down the field, and Jermaine Lewis, spelling the injured Foster, punched the ball in from two yards out, tying things back up. 31-31.
Another unsuccessful Oregon drive gave the Bruins the ball back. McNown led his offense back down the field, and Chris Sailer, one of the best kickers in UCLA’s long lineage of legs, came in to give the Bruins the lead as the fourth quarter started winding down. Not so fast my friend. The middle of the UCLA line pinched in, and one of the jumping Ducks behind the line got a hand on the ball, keeping the game tied.
Just after Oregon came through on special teams, Droughns, who was already having a monster game against the Bruin defense, on his way to likely a 200 yard rushing day, went back to work.
After taking a hard hit on the sideline, Droughns picked himself back up, and re-entered the huddle. Droughns, looking hesitant for the first time all game, took the carry to the right hand side. He sped to the sideline, and in one of the most decisive moments in Droughns’ career let alone Oregon football history, he fell to the ground, and stayed there-obviously in pain, despite being left untouched by the Bruin defenders.
When he rose to his feet, the star running back could barely hobble around. Suddenly, Oregon’s chances at pulling off the upset plummeted. The drive stalled, and the Ducks were forced to punt. Almost on cue, McNown lofted the ball way up into the air, and his favorite target, Danny Farmer, reeled in the long-ball, and was surrounded by Ducks as he approached the goal line. The defenders did what they could to hold Farmer short, but they were unsuccessful, letting Farmer score from 60 yards out. 38-31 UCLA.
Time was running out, and the Ducks needed someone to step up on offense. In a sign showcasing how important this game was, Droughns (who unknowingly had actually broken his leg) convinced the trainers to let him back into the game. While his efforts were admirable, the pain threshold couldn’t withstand the rigors of football, as Droughns fumbled yet again after being hit on his broken leg on his first carry upon returning to the field.
His toughness may have inspired the rest of his team, though, as Akili Smith drove the Ducks down the field even without Droughns, Reuben’s day and season officially over.
Oregon got across midfield as time continued to tick away, under 1:30 now. Things started to look bleak for the Ducks when Akili Smith was sacked, bringing up the play of the game. Facing 4th & 16, things looked desperate for the Ducks, but Oregon wasn’t done just yet.
Needing a miracle, Smith dropped back, and let the ball fly down the far sideline. UCLA had the play defended perfectly, and tipped the pass away.
The story of the 1998 Oregon-UCLA game should have ended there. Oregon had gotten too lucky, too many times, Oregon’s superstar beast was out of the game with what would be a season-ending injury, Oregon hadn’t proven that they were better than UCLA, it should have ended there…right then-and-there.
Lightning struck. The ball spun up in the air, and Damon Griffin seemed to be out of position to make the catch. But somehow, Griffin tipped the ball back towards himself, and clutched the ball to his chest, somehow not only retaining possession of the ball but keeping presence of mind to pick up just enough yardage for the first down.
The Oregon section erupted. Against all odds, the Fighting Ducks had earned another shot. Energized by Griffin’s spectacular play, Smith plugged away, and got his team down to the two-yard line. Fittingly it was Griffin, who had made the game-saving grab, who would be rewarded with a touchdown to even the score.
38-38. Oregon had earned overtime against the second-ranked Bruins. Against all probabilities, the Droughns-less Ducks had fought all the way back, trailing for nearly the entire game, and given another shot against UCLA. All they had to do was hold UCLA for another 30 seconds.
If history is any proof, nothing is over until it’s over. The finish to the already classic game ended up being one of, if not the most chaotic sequences in the history of college football.
UCLA could have just knelt on the ball sending the game to OT, but nothing about this game had been conservative. With a couple seconds remaining, McNown took a snap and stepped to his right avoiding a rush; buying time for his receivers to get downfield for a last gasp hail mary to steal the game back. The lefty launched a desperate moonshot across the field towards the endzone, and as it descended it became apparent that Oregon was at a disadvantage. There were two Bruin receivers in the left corner of the field, and only one Duck defender. Drew Bennett, a dual-threat QB/WR leaped up, put his hands on the ball, and fell to the ground.
Thankfully for the Ducks, it was short of the goal line, but the outcome seemed certain, Chris Sailer had an easy field goal to give the Bruins the W.
But lightning struck again. Sailer shanked it.
Oregon was running on fumes, that much was clear. Both teams had battled, giving every ounce they had leading to the draw in regulation, pushing all to the absolute limit. Now, more was being asked, as fans and announcers both could only revel in the tremendous efforts showcased by both teams. Without Droughns, Smith was the only way that Oregon had a chance. With everyone near collapse, one player still had enough in the tank to step up, UCLA’s star defender Brendon Ayanbedejo. He was described as “playing like his hair was on fire,” a fair analysis based on what followed. On three consecutive plays Ayanbadejo split the line, blitzing up the middle and sacking Akili Smith, pushing the Ducks out of field goal range forcing a desperation 4th down pass that fell incomplete. Upon taking possession, UCLA calmly moved the ball, setting up the opportunity for Sailer to redeem himself with a chipshot field goal, which he promptly nailed, ending one of the most exhausting (and entertaining) games in history. UCLA had escaped. 41-38 UCLA.
The fact that UCLA won this game wasn’t the most important thing to take away from this shootout. The idea that Droughns, although already banged up from a series of injuries earlier in the season, was just one step away from springing his team to heights unlike anything an Oregon fan could have imagined, is just too hard to contemplate.
There had been rumblings that if Oregon could beat UCLA, why wouldn’t they be considered a candidate for the national championship…something unheard of in Oregon history, but why not? After this game, with Droughns sidelined and the team physically and emotionally exhausted, that dream would slip away. Despite a heroic, record-setting senior season from Akili Smith, the team limped their way through the 2nd half of the season, culminating in a Christmas Day loss to Rick Neuheisel’s Colorado team in the Hawaii Bowl.
It would take a couple years, but Oregon would return to the championship conversation again with the likes of Joey Harrington and LaMichael James leading the way.
But what if Droughns had planted his leg differently? What if the Ducks were propelled by the enormous upset, running the table in the PAC-10, perhaps finishing the season contending for the championship in January?”
Ironically enough, UCLA did just that. The Bruins ran the table in the PAC-10 by the skin of their teeth. Their game against the Beavers in Corvallis could also rank highly in terms of instant classics as well. UCLA’s luck ran out after surrendering a 17 point fourth quarter lead in their final regular season game against Miami, a game rescheduled from the beginning of the season thanks to Hurricane Georges.
When the Bruins lost their championship bid, hundreds of events, probably beginning with the transfer of J.P. Losman, a future 1st round draft pick by the Buffalo Bills following a successful career at Tulane, who was set to fill in for the departing McNown, forced UCLA into a deep rut. The epic collapse proved to be the last gasp in UCLA’s dominance in the Pac-10, the program never again reaching the level of play in the conference since, the death-knell coming when Oregon returned the favor in 2000 with ESPN College Gameday again watching, this time at Autzen Stadium with the Ducks pummeling a highly-ranked Bruin team quarterbacked by Corey Paus, not Losman.
What ifs are the most painful thing in sports. The idea of having Oregon achieving the powerhouse level over a decade before today is something that would shake the very foundation of the Oregon football program. Lost amidst the eternal what-if pondering of the 2001 and 2007 season is the fact that a decade before Dixon’s knee gave way to Oregon’s first Heisman and championship hopes, so too did those hopes fade with the collapse of Reuben Droughns’ leg.
Spread offense? No way. Chip Kelly? Think again. Joey Harrington? Possibly a REPEAT champion.
One play changed Oregon’s fate in 1994. Another play changed its fate in 1998, only this time, it wasn’t a Rose Bowl on the line, it was a national championship, and an express ticket to bring Oregon to college football’s highest ranks.
There would be other chances someday, but Duck fans would have to wait a while longer before the program would officially arrive on the national scene as a viable contender.