Fifteen-Year Anniversary: Two Tight Wins Shape the Successful 1997 Season to Come
The 1997 Oregon Ducks football season is often overlooked in the program’s history. By the year’s end the Ducks were a bowl champion with all the makings of a finely-tuned offensive juggernaut set for big things in 98′, but it certainly didn’t start that way. Patchwork lines, first-time starters, a dual quarterback rotation, and other tinkering was the storyline of much of the year, the Ducks searching to find their identity as a program with most of the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl era players gone.
For all the success that has come to the University of Oregon football program in the ensuing years, it is important to recall the years where growth and development paved the path to achievement. With that in mind, we recall on the 15th anniversary of the games played, two of the contests in 1997—Nevada and Fresno State.
Oregon at Nevada
September 13th, 1997
For the first time in history, the Nevada Wolfpack played host to a Pac-10 team at Mackay Stadium, a showdown vs. the University of Oregon. A packed house, including 5,000 Oregon Duck diehards, were on hand to watch. Oregon had problems putting away Nevada the year before, losing key starters to injury, winning 44-30 in a game closer than the score indicated.
Oregon, coming off a week one victory, was heavily reliant on their defense. It didn’t take Nevada long to show they meant business. Oregon pinned Nevada deep on the kickoff, but the Wolf Pack offense came out strong, completing three passes for first downs to midfield. Nevada drove to into Oregon territory and was in the redzone before anyone knew it. On third and goal, Nevada converted to a wide-open receiver in motion on a crossing route, and just like that Oregon trailed 7-0.
Akili Smith would get his second career start for the Ducks after a rocky start over Arizona the previous week. Nevada’s high caliber defense did not make it any easier for Smith and co., as he was heavily blitzed by the Nevada defense. The first quarter ended with Nevada maintaining their touchdown lead.
Oregon would narrowly escape disaster early in the second quarter, as Nevada drove right down the field, only to be held to a field goal thanks to a Peter Sirmon stop on third and goal. Looking for a spark from the misfiring offensive attack, Coach Mike Bellotti called on quarterback Jason Maas to replace Akili Smith, and he responded by leading Oregon into the redzone. However, the drive would stall again, with running back Saladin McCullough fumbling for the second time in the first half.
Oregon, held in check all half by a scrappy Nevada defense, would finally break through. After a long drive, Saladin McCullough, after two early fumbles, punched it in, tying the game 7-7. Nevada would capitalize on a penalty on the kickoff to nab a field goal and enter the half up 10-7.
Starting the second half, Oregon came up empty, continuing a trend that had been haunting them all game long. Nevada, fortunately, was also suffering from the exact same problem–long drives leading to no points. Despite being heavily outplayed, Oregon only tailed 10-7, and found themselves in position to steal one on the road in a hostile house hellbent on a statement home victory to build their program upon.
After another Oregon punt, Nevada would cough it up, giving the Ducks a much-needed spark. Oregon cornerback Justin Wilcox would make a huge play, forcing a Nevada receiver to fumble, safety Jaiya Figueras jumping on the ball giving Oregon its first great field position all game. Oregon almost fumbled right back as Jerry Brown coughed up the ball, but the Ducks recovered and drove inside the 20. A penalty on a missed field goal attempt would give Oregon another shot to tie the game, and on the second try the kick stayed true.
Knotted at ten, Oregon and Nevada headed to the fourth quarter both thinking they had wasted opportunities to seize control of the game. After a Nevada field goal, Jason Maas started Oregon’s comeback with a big conversion on a third down run. Several plays later from the Nevada 16, Maas would hit Saladin McCullough for his second TD of the game, giving Oregon a 17-13 lead, their first of the game.
Nevada, in their biggest non-conference home game ever, would not go down without a fight. In less than three minutes, Nevada quarterback John Dutton led his team on a long drive right down the field in only eight plays. The drive was capped by a ten-yard touchdown pass to receiver Trevor Insley, who would later go on to set the NCAA-I record for most career receiving yards–a record he still holds. With less than four minutes in the game, Oregon trailed 20-17.
Jason Maas (still in at quarterback) would be tasked with bringing Oregon back. After a penalty on the kickoff, Oregon would have to go 90 yards to avoid being posterized as the major program fallen by Nevada in their build to relevance. A big pass play on first down was brought back on a holding penalty, and Oregon was now faced with 98 yards of green in front of them.
On third and 18, Maas connected with tight end LaCorey Collins to convert a game changing third down. The offensive line, inexperienced to begin the year, was beginning to find their rhythm, giving Maas the time he needed. Tight end Blake Spence came through big, catching a pass at midfield for a first down, extending his reception streak to 16 consecutive games.
On third and 8, Maas converted again to continue the drive. Two plays later, Maas would hit Tony Hartley at the five, who dove into the endzone for the score. With 1:03 to play, Oregon had taken the lead the hard way, driving 98 yards after an embarrassing defeat looked almost inevitable.
Trailing 24-20, Nevada had one final chance to pull the upset. However, a big third down stop by Justin Wilcox left Nevada facing a fourth down with under 30 seconds to play. A deep pass attempt was overthrown, and the celebration was on for Oregon.
Now 2-0 on the season, the Ducks headed home thankful to escape Nevada with a win, ready to face a difficult Fresno State team the following week. On paper Oregon was expected to win, but Fresno State had long been a thorn in Oregon’s side, a trend that would continue for years to come. Akili Smith had superstar written all over him quickly becoming a fan favorite to take the Ducks to new heights, but on this day it was Jason Maas, gritty all night long, who proved the hero, earning the starting nod against FSU for his performance.
Fresno State at Oregon
September 20th, 1997
One year after playing in the first-ever regular season overtime game, Oregon welcomed Fresno State into Autzen Stadium, with the Bulldogs determined to exact revenge for the hard-fought game the previous year.
As was the case the week before against Nevada, Oregon’s offense stalled early. Jason Maas, coming off a gritty performance against the Wolfpack, struggled to find a rhythm. On the very first play from scrimmage, Maas was intercepted, the ball returned into the redzone. FSU tailback Michael Pittman, who would go on to a solid NFL career, was an absolute bruiser of a back, fitting the personification of Fresno State football—fast, strong, physical. He would prove to be a menace to the Ducks all game long. On the second play of the drive, Pittman ran in untouched from seven yards out, giving Fresno State a 7-0 lead barely a minute into the game.
Oregon, after struggling to convert yards into points the previous week, took advantage of good field position after the kickoff. Tight end Blake Spence would finish off the drive with a 20-yard touchdown grab, tying the game 7-7. Matching punt for punt for most of the quarter, Fresno State would break through just before the quarter ended, taking a 14-7 lead into the second quarter.
Akili Smith, pulled the week before, would get his chance at quarterback in the second quarter as the Ducks took over at midfield via punt (two quarterback system, does anyone miss that?) Smith would convert a huge third down to wide receiver Pat Johnson. Three plays later, he found an open AJ Jelks in the endzone for a five-yard touchdown pass.
The game was again tied up at 14, and after a defensive stand, Saladin McCullough broke off a big run to the 50, igniting the Autzen Stadium crowd. Smith would show off his legs that made him one of the most coveted players in the country coming from the JC ranks, converting a third down on an impressive run. Akili then hit Spence for his second TD of the game, as Oregon captured its first lead 21-14, letting the Duck faithful breathe a little easier for the first time since seeing the opening drive turnover against a formidable foe.
As the first half was coming to an end, Fresno QB Billy Volek and company marched to midfield, converting two key first downs. However, Justin Wilcox, ever the precision tactician at the cornerback spot, knocked down two passes, keeping Fresno out of field goal range. A hail-mary pass fell to the turf as the half closed with Oregon leading a pesky Bulldogs team, 21-14.
Smith and Maas had combined for 154 yards passing and three touchdowns in the first half, the battle for playing time still neck-and-neck with neither quarterback able to assert themselves the clear starter, both simply too good not to play.
The Bulldogs, behind the steady play of future NFL quarterback Billy Volek, would strike back as the second half got underway. Volek recognized a mismatch and took advantage, an unguarded receiver due to an untimely blitz, who streaked down the field for a 50 yard touchdown untouched. The extra point was missed leaving Oregon in front by a single digit, but it was becoming clear that just like the year prior Fresno State would not go down without a fight.
Fresno State was being led by first year coach Pat Hill, who in later years would turn the Bulldogs into one of the most feared non-BCS schools in the country, with their “play the best and beat the best to be considered the best” mentality.
Oregon, an upstart program themselves, would show the mettle that would define their climb up the ranks. Jason Maas returned to the quarterback spot, atoning for his first half miscues. After he converted on two third down plays, Maas kept his hot streak alive, again throwing to the one player Fresno showed incapable of stopping–Blake Spence. The burly tight end would do the rest, making the most of a block and finding his way into the end zone untouched for his third touchdown of the day, giving Oregon a 28-20 lead.
Oregon’s defense held Fresno State in check the rest of the quarter, giving Maas and the offense chance after chance to increase their lead. However, they could only muster up a field goal, and entered the fourth quarter with a 31-20 lead…a lead that by all accounts could of–and should of–been bigger.
Autzen Stadium, home to so many magical moments, was about to witness once more an exhilarating fourth quarter filled with drama. Oregon recovered a Fresno State fumble (their first turnover of the afternoon) and made the most of it as Saladin McCullough, quiet for most of the afternoon, dragged defenders into the endzone to give Oregon what seemed to be a comfortable 37-20 lead in the 4th quarter. But another missed extra point left the game within reach, a 17-point lead, and behind the pro talent of Pittman and Volek Fresno refused to go away.
It appeared Oregon was in control of the game from there. But, just as the Ducks came from behind the previous year at Bulldog Stadium, Fresno State would show they could do the very same. On their ensuing drive, Michael Pittman became unstoppable, leading the Bulldogs down the field before Oregon knew what hit them. Up 37-27, things still felt in control. Until…
Within four minutes, Fresno State got the ball right back and again picked Oregon’s defense apart; six plays later, they were back in the end zone. Oregon’s lead, 17 just minutes ago, had been trimmed to three.
The Ducks were reeling and out of synch on offense, going three-and-out, with Maas being sacked on third down. With a long six minutes remaining on the clock, Oregon would be punting to a Fresno State brimming with confidence.
Coach Pat Hill, still young as a head coach, went conservative on the drive. Oregon’s defense, gassed and in need of a big-play, was saved by true freshman cornerback Rashad Bauman. Pittman, gashing Oregon’s defense all game long, looked to be headed untouched into the endzone to give FSU the lead, until Bauman came out of nowhere, taking him down at the seven yard line. The Ducks stood firm, forcing a field goal, and the game was all tied up at 37.
Oregon had witnessed a 17-point lead slip away in the 4th against a hungry Fresno State team with all the momentum in their favor. With less than 50 seconds to play, Oregon would have to go 50 yards just to get into field goal range. Coach Mike Bellotti opted not to risk a late turnover trying to press it, and sent the game to overtime, running the clock out. Oregon had been successful the previous year against Fresno State in OT, and would look to do the same.
It was then that the ol’ Autzen magic reared its head once more, an exhausted defense getting bulldozed by Michael Pittman all game suddenly finding that extra ounce of energy that comes from the Oregon crowd. Peter Sirmon, a staple in Oregon’s linebacking core, came up with the play of the game, swatting down a Volek pass at the goal line on third down, forcing a Fresno field goal attempt.
They would connect, giving Fresno State a 40-37 lead, with Oregon getting the ball, a 20 point lead, and any sense of momentum gone. But the defense had held, and now Oregon could put the game away with a touchdown in overtime, once more sending away Fresno heartbroken.
For the second consecutive year, they would have to make the most of their drive in overtime, trailing by three. Jason Maas hit AJ Jelks for a gain of eight, but then faced 3rd and 2. Saladin McCullough took the handoff up the middle and spun free for the first down at the 15. On the very next play, Maas went back to the X-factor in the game Blake Spence, finding the tight end downfield, shoved out of bounds just before he could reach the end zone. Spence’s ninth catch for 127 yards put the Ducks only one yard away from victory.
On first and goal, Maas took the snap, leaped over his center and right guard, and into the endzone, giving Oregon the 43-40 victory over a very game Fresno State squad. Tight end Blake Spence was awarded well-deserved MVP honors for his nine receptions, 127 yards, and three touchdowns.
Fresno State 40
Oregon had narrowly escaped two opponents that gave everything the Ducks could stand, and Oregon looked ready for the young season sitting at 3-0. But the team was beat up giving everything they had to overcome Nevada and FSU, and the good times wouldn’t last. The tinkering and inconsistency continued, costing Oregon games in four of the net five contests. The Ducks would rebound to win two of the next three, earning a trip to the Las Vegas Bowl to face Air Force.
The Las Vegas Bowl showed all that Oregon was capable of given time to come together as a team, but it was through the hard-fought battles early in the year that this team showed its true merit, the hard work and never-say-die spirit that would lead to so many close victories in the years to come.