In 2009, the Ducks were out to avenge the loss in the season opener to Boise State and the backlash that emerged from the postgame extra-curricular activities caught on national TV. The team may not have started the season the way they had hoped, but the Ducks would prove Chip Kelly’s echoing words valid, that one game does not define a season.
After the offense notably fell flat in the 1st game against Boise St, not gaining a first down until the third quarter, Oregon would rally for a close win against Purdue, and then proceed to abruptly end Utah’s then 16-game win streak before hosting the #6 Cal Bears at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks had started the season very un-Duck-like, struggling on offense relying on the defense to win games, in particular cornerback Walter Thurmond III’s stellar play almost single-handedly winning games for the Ducks.
The team was supposed to rely on a heavy dose of the run game from senior LeGarrette Bount, an absolute beast in the 2008 season who had broken the single-season touchdown record at Oregon despite splitting carries with Jeremiah Johnson. But Blount would sit out almost the entire season on suspension, a result of the now infamous post-game events broadcast to a nation getting its first taste of football for the year. Into the spotlight were flung redshirt freshmen LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner to carry the load, and those first few weeks their wide-eyes and youth showed. All signs pointing to it being a very tough year for the Ducks under new head coach Chip Kelly, predicting likely a mid-conference finish.
Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli had shown flashes of brilliance in 2008, particularly in the Holiday Bowl vs Oklahoma State, leading to extremely high hopes for 2009. But the season had started with a thud, the poor performance only overshadowed by the thwack emanating from Byron Hout’s jaw after getting roundhouse’d by Blount’s right fist. The after-effects were felt for weeks thereafter, as Masoli’s passing posed zero threat to opposing teams, and Barner and James couldn’t be relied on to create all the offense.
Chip Kelly’s system that had stunned the football world in 2007 on Dennis Dixon’s destruction of Michigan was having issues, some wondered if perhaps it had been figured out, that hiring Kelly as head coach was a mistake…but those lingering public ponderings would quickly dissipate.
The Cal Bears meanwhile had begun the season 3-0, led by the dangerous Jahvid Best at running back. An early Heisman candidate that season, Best had been named as conference player of the week when he ran for a record-tying 5 touchdowns against Minnesota the week before, among the leaders in rushing in the nation. Best was averaging over 137 yards per game, alongside backfield mate Shane Vereen, the duo were commanding the #10 ranked offense in the country at the time.
The Autzen crowd on that sunny September 26th gameday was basking in both sun and nervous anticipation entering Pac-10 play.Oregon came out wearing a green and yellow “throwback” uniform combination that had not been seen since the 1998 season, the look a welcome change from the variety of modern looks, and fans hoped the Ducks could channel even a shred of the offensive prowess displayed by the 1998 Ducks. After three close games to start the season, Duck fans were longing for a decisive win, and #6 Cal was thought to be the biggest test on the schedule to that point.
The Autzen faithful would experience a day not to be forgotten, but what was starting to look like a tenuous season on the brink of collapse turned far worse on the opening play.
Oregon won the coin toss, and had elected to receive. Standing deep to receive was Thurmond, the clear-cut MVP of the season to that point, scoring multiple TDs both on defense and special teams. Thurmond was the Ducks most potent weapon, without him Oregon may well have been 0-3.
Thurmond fielded the opening kickoff and started running left. As he cut right towards the middle of the field, he was hit on the knee by a helmet, falling to the ground in pain and losing control of the ball. Not even one snap from scrimmage, and Thurmond was lost for the season with torn knee ligaments, and Cal was already in scoring position, which they would convert into a 47 year field goal.
It may have been hot and sunny at Autzen, but it was raining as far as fans were concerned, the hopes of the 2009 season being washed away in the wake of bad national publicity stemming from the Blount incident, an offense incapable of finding any rhythm, and now the team leader gone for the year. It had gone from bad to worse, but just as it is always darkest before dawn, the proverbial sunshine would emerge in a big way, transforming the year into one of great success, propelling the Ducks forward to the continued success the program has experienced over the past three seasons.
With much of the crowd and seemingly the team distraught over the injury to Thurmond, a mostly sloppy first quarter unfolded. Oregon’s quarterback Jeremiah Masoli had managed to connect on five passes, one more than the four total completions he had during the entire game the previous week vs. Utah, a methodical drive resulting in a Morgan Flint 30 yard field goal to tie it at 3-3.
The Ducks were playing scrappy, but against a stout Cal team hearing rumblings of Heisman and national championship, just about everyone could sense that it was only a matter of time until one team broke the game wide open…but it wasn’t the team everybody thought it would be.
On the first play of the second quarter, Masoli found tight end Ed Dickson over the middle completely unguarded on a picture perfect 26 yard toss and catch for the first touchdown of the game. The play was more than just a score, it was a wake-up call. It was the moment that Oregon’s offense came alive, awaking from its season-long slumber. Thurmond had provided much of the scoring to that point with his superhuman play in the first three games, but now unable to lean on that crutch, the Ducks offense took over.
The crowd responded, jubilant in the first legitimate signs of life displayed from the struggling Ducks, on a national stage that was supposed to be Jahvid Best’s Heisman campaign launch with a beatdown of the lackluster Ducks. The day wouldn’t follow the storyline the media wanted to tell…for the first time all year, there were signs of life coming from the Ducks.
Following the Dickson score, with the crowd still at a fever pitch, the Ducks lined up for a two-point conversion attempt. Nate Costa threw a perfect screen pass to kicker Morgan Flint for the score, and the Ducks took an 11-3 lead, with the Autzen crowd on their feet and in full throat for the upcoming defensive series.
Predicting a record-setting day and season, instead try as they might, and they did 16 times, Cal would never get much out of Jahvid Best. The Ducks stifled the ballyhooed back at every turn, their vaunted offense going nowhere against a fast, angry, and attacking Oregon defense. They had averaged almost 490 yards and 250 rushing yards per game to that point, the ESPN talking heads were smitten with the speedy but fragile Cal running back, but on this day Cal was completely shutdown.
Oregon defensive tackle Brandon Bair offered his opinion of the game plan for stopping Jahvid Best; “Everybody kept asking, `What are you going to do about Best?’ If he can’t get past the line of scrimmage, we have nothing to worry about. That was our mentality, we were going to come in here and hit him with all we’ve got. We know we have the talent, the speed, the ability to stop anybody.”
The Bears would not score again. As a team, the Bears rushed for just 77 yards on 32 carries, for a paltry 2.4 yard per carry average. Kevin Riley, the Cal quarterback and Beaverton native, struggled as well. While he did not throw an interception, his 31 pass attempts yielded just 123 passing yards for a 4 yd-per-attempt average.
Touchdown runs from Remene Alston and “new kid” LaMichael James pushed the lead to 25-3 at halftime. After the break, Oregon kept the pressure squarely on the Bears. Masoli continued arguably his best single game passing performance, finding Ed Dickson two more times in the 3rd quarter for touchdowns. Now at three receiving touchdowns on the game, Ed had tied a Demetrius Williams Oregon school record from 2003.
The rout was on, and Oregon fans were loving every second of it. The pundits could hardly believe what they were watching, the team that got manhandled vs. Boise State on national TV week one was now turning the tables on the sexy pick for the best west coast team in the country. Oregon was back.
Masoli was efficient too, completing 21-25 passes for 253 yards and three touchdowns, all thrown to TE Ed Dickson. Given the sizable lead, Masoli was pulled after the 3rd quarter and replaced by veteran back up Nate Costa. Costa led the team to one more Morgan Flint field goal in the 4th quarter before the final whistle had blown, final tally 42-3. The 39 point loss was the most lopsided one in Cal coach Jeff Tedford’s storied career, and the worst beating Cal had ever endured while ranked in the top 10.
The Oregon Ducks had come out that day and hit Cal right in the Golden Bear teeth. The most surprising part, was that offensive guru Jeff Tedford, the #6 Cal Bears and their top 10 offense could do absolutely nothing about it. Chip Kelly’s 1st team had begun to find their rhythm, and gashed the Bears for 26 1st downs, 236 rushing yards, completely demoralizing the Bears in a 525 yard offensive outburst.
It was bittersweet with the loss of Thurmond, but the Oregon program had risen like a phoenix from the ashes of one of the single-worst P.R. moments in NCAA history, and witnessed the emergence of a new star–LaMichael James. Whatever lightswitch was turned on after the Dickson touchdown, the power flowed to LaMichael as he showed glimpses for the first time of the consistent player he became for the next three years–the best runningback in the country.The next year James would win the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s top runningback, the first Duck to ever receive the trophy.
Before the Cal game the Ducks looked like a team regressing back to mid-tier form, after the Cal game they were an unstoppable freight train. Oregon would go on to an outright conference championship, and the first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1994-95 season.
It’s hard to say where Oregon’s program might be today had the Cal victory not formulated the way it did. If the Ducks had played like they had to open the first quarter of the season, the team would have been lucky to be bowl eligible. Everyone doubted the Ducks, Chip Kelly as a head coach, the progression of the Oregon program as anything but a paper tiger occasionally capable of fielding a top-notch unit every few years. After the Cal game, Oregon became one of the premier programs in the entire nation, the whole west coast put on notice that these Ducks were for real.
In the 1994 season when Oregon improbably made it to the Rose Bowl, it was fueled by a single watershed moment, Kenny Wheaton’s infamous pick-six interception vs. Washington. The Ducks never lost another regular season game thereafter and earned the Pac-10 title. Fast forward to 2009, and the Cal game in its entirety became the 2nd Wheaton moment, that iconic point in time when everything suddenly clicked, fueling the remainder of the season forward. Thereafter, Oregon was not going to be denied.
In the time since, the Ducks have only expanded on that momentum sparked by Dickson’s TD, an unprecedented streak in program history. The Ducks are 34-6 under Chip Kelly, the only team in the nation to have played in a BCS game the last three seasons, and a model of consistency maintaining an intact coaching staff for all three years, also the only team in the nation to claim that.
What a difference a day makes.