October 25, 1997
Renowned Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum: deep in tradition, short on victories for past Oregon teams. In the previous 26 years, Oregon had only a single victory on Trojan Turf – the jumpstart their most improbable turnaround to the 1994 season en route to the Rose Bowl. Three years later, Oregon (coming off a great win over Utah) returned for a night game against USC. Oregon was going through a mid-season slump, as had USC. Then-coach John Robinson was on the hot seat as expectations for USC had gone way down in only a few years’ time with the Trojans sitting at 4-3, the same record as Oregon.) Both teams were in major need of victory to keep their post-season hopes strong.
The starting quarterback that night was Jason Maas. The previous week against Utah, Akili Smith did not see any playing time. Maas’s fantastic performance of 20 completions for 370 yards and three touchdowns gave then-coach Mike Bellotti no reason to play Smith against Utah, and Maas would start the USC game with expectations high to continue where he left off.
Three years earlier, Oregon had pulled the upset of the ages over Mighty Troy. After a two year bye against the Trojans, the 1997 team was determined to pick up where the “Gang Green” Squad had left off. However, Oregon would have problems from the start. Oregon would kick off and stuff USC deep on its first drive, but would have nothing but trouble beginning with their ensuing possession. Each of Maas’s passes fell incomplete, many dropped by open receivers. The struggling USC team that appeared an even match for the Ducks, looked like a juggernaut by comparison. Oregon dropped pass after pass to put themselves in a hole early on. Early in the first quarter, USC took advantage of Oregon’s weak Rich Stubler-led Canadian Football scheme; showing why Oregon ranked last in total defense. USC converted three third-down conversions, driving the length of the field for the first score, capped by a run and dive for a touchdown from 15 yards out by the USC Tailback. 7-0, USC; seven minutes into the first quarter.
Penalties and two sacks pushed Oregon farther back on their next drive. Josh Bidwell (who would become a hero of the night) had to punt from deep in Oregon territory. USC didn’t make things any easier for Oregon, driving from midfield for three first downs. True freshman Rashad Bauman made a remarkable touchdown-saving breakup on R. Jay Soward, but Soward would find other ways into the end zone from there. Handed the ball on a double reverse, he eluded Peter Sirmon and ran 20 yards for the score. 14-0, USC; end of the first quarter.
Early in the second quarter, Oregon dodged disaster. Maas was unable to move the ball at all on the keeper/option, contrary to his usual abilities. An option pitch to Saladin McCullough was mishandled, but McCullough would pick up the ball, elude many tacklers, and run over 50 yards to the USC 10. However, Oregon would have to settle for a field goal. 14-3, USC.
On USC’s ensuing possession, they would start with great field position, and drive 60 yards into the red zone again. From the 15, USC’s Rodney Sermons would catch a screen pass from Fox and use his speed to make his way into the end zone for his second time, and USC’s third of the game. 21-3, USC.
Oregon managed nothing. USC dodged disaster after being pinned at their own 2 late in the quarter, rushing out past the 20, and keeping the ball out of Oregon’s hands for the remainder of the half. The second quarter ticked away, and Oregon found itself deep in a hole. Oregon lucked out as a last minute USC field goal with enough distance would bounce off the upright, to prevent a wider deficit for the Ducks. The first half, however, would end with USC in control. Oregon fans wondering what had become of the amazing “Gang Green” squad they had witnessed blow out Mighty Troy only three years prior, as their beloved Ducks trailed by three scores, a painful 21-3 gap at the half.
It was an apparent disaster for the Ducks heading into the second half. USC had by far dominated the second half, leading in total yards 257-90 and 21-3 on the scoreboard. Given the struggles Oregon’s defense went through and how out of rhythm the offense was, no one imagined Oregon having a chance at any kind of comeback down by three scores. It was the third quarter, and USC had all the momentum from a sinking Oregon team.
Akili Smith was called upon to start the second half, given the first half struggles Maas had gone through. USC picked up where they left off in the first half, as they came out firing on all cylinders and driving the length of the field early in the third quarter. Oregon appeared deflated when forced to punt on fourth down from its own 40. From there, a gutsy call by Mike Bellotti briefly shifted momentum in Oregon’s direction. Punter Josh Bidwell (a high school quarterback) took the snap and faked it, throwing a beautiful spiral in the direction of talented upback AJ Jelks. Jelks got the first down and secured the all-important momentum. Smith was ready to show his abilities, when his early season struggles showed again. Pressure from the USC defense caused Smith to cough up the ball, and USC would recover to steal momentum back from the Ducks. It then appeared USC was back in control as they took over in Oregon territory. It was third and six, and all the Trojans had a wide open receiver for a first down. All of a sudden, a dangerous true freshman (arguably the best ever to play CB as a true freshman) came out of nowhere to give the Ducks a much needed spark. He read USC QB John Fox, stepping in front of the receiver, using his speed to go 61 yards untouched the opposite direction. Bauman’s first defensive points as a Duck gave Oregon its first touchdown of the day, starting a comeback for the ages. 21-10, USC.
Oregon’s defense held USC on the ensuing drive, not about to relinquish its momentum. As USC drove, the Oregon defense caused a fumble that the Ducks would recover.
Given new life, Akili Smith finally had his chance to show what he was truly capable of. Jason Maas had made the most of his chance, and could have potentially been the next Bill Musgrave. At one point during the mid-season slump, Oregon fans wondered where the talent was in the nation’s top JC recruit, as he was held out the previous week in Maas’s best career performance. Smith used the much-needed spark given by his good friend Bauman to guide the Ducks to a comeback.
Smith and the Ducks were backed in their own territory, when he showed his worthiness… airing out a ball to the speedster Tony Hartley. Hartley made a terrific catch at the ten yard line of the Trojans, a gain of 58, and put the Ducks deep into Trojan territory. Blake Spence would catch a would-be touchdown by getting one foot down, but was called out-of-bounds. Soon, Oregon was stopped on third down and forced to settle for the field goal. The Josh Smith field goal split the uprights, but a late penalty by USC gave the Ducks a second chance following a running-into-the-kicker call. Bellotti opted to take the points off the board to try for the end zone again. Seconds later, Saladin McCullough took the option from Smith, plowed his way through defenders for the score, bringing the Ducks within a touchdown to open the fourth quarter.
All of a sudden, Oregon was back in the game, a score away from tying it up. Most unfortunately for the Ducks and the future career of the once-successful kicker Josh Smith, the PAT sailed wide; keeping Oregon down by eight to mean a touchdown required a conversion to tie the game. 24-16, USC.
Oregon opened the fourth quarter down by eight, but with all the momentum. The Oregon defense held USC in check on the ensuing drive despite good field position at the 40. USC could not dent the defense on first and second downs. Oregon true freshman Jason Nikalao sacked USC QB John Fox to force a punt.
Oregon senior tackle David Weber (veteran anchor of the line) would be sidelined with a torn ligament (ending his career at Oregon) and forcing Oregon to shift linemen, as they had all year. However, Smith was ready to show he had what it took to work with the line he had, earning the comeback and with it the right to be the full-time starter at Oregon. The line, many of them playing out of place, struggled to properly block, but Smith came out firing on all cylinders and continually escaped pressure by the blitzing USC defense. Smith guided Oregon beyond midfield and to three first downs. However, the drive would stall. In the days before instant replay, a controversial call went in USC’s favor as Pat Johnson never had possession of a catch, and a dropped pass by Johnson was called a fumble and given to USC deep in their own territory. Yet Oregon was not about to give up the momentum, and stuffed USC immediately to a three and out, forcing them to punt the ball right back to the Ducks.
Both teams would stuff one another on defense on the next few drives. Smith was sacked deep in his own territory to force a punt on Oregon’s next drive. USC replaced their struggling QB John Fox, but the backup would do no good either. Pac-10 leading tackler, Peter Sirmon, would make a sack on third down to give Oregon back the ball with 7.5 minutes remaining. On the ensuing drive, Smith was on fire again as he threw a beautiful first down into Trojan territory to Kevin Parker coming across the middle. On fourth and 3 from the Trojan 40, Bellotti opted to go for it. Smith made the most of his chance as he escaped pressure, eluded several tackles, and ran for the first down to show the fans the mobile QB they had longed to see. Two McCullough runs got Oregon into the red zone, and moments later, Smith would slither again through the USC line and make his way into the end zone for the score to pull within two.
Oregon had all the momentum and was ready to pull ahead; but were down by two due to the earlier missed PAT. It proved to be a huge deal, as Oregon had to go for two, and the conversion would fail. With just under five minutes remaining, Oregon had the game in reach, but still trailed. 24-22, USC.
Oregon’s defense held USC on the ensuing possession. Though struggling to fit, and last place in the Pac-10 under Stubler, they were determined to win, using their momentum to work as a unit and stop USC. Assisted by penalties, USC was pushed back to 3rd and 25. Peter Sirmon made two huge stops to give Oregon back the ball, out of timeouts and only a minute remaining; yet the game closely within Oregon’s reach.
On the Oregon sidelines, Maas had been warming up, having the two minute drill down much better than Akili Smith. Many thought Maas would be the one called upon to move Oregon downfield on their final drive of the game. However, coach Bellotti had full confidence in Smith. Bellotti knew he was the #1 national JC recruit for a reason; and had seen Akili lead Oregon thus far from the 21-3 deficit. Seeing how fired up Smith was and knowing Smith’s athletic capabilities; Bellotti wisely called upon the talented and gifted mobile quarterback to finish what he started. Oregon received the ball from a USC punt deep in their own territory, and Smith would lead the offense onto the field one final time.
Beginning at Oregon’s own 40, Smith went to work immediately. In only two plays, Oregon was deep in Trojan territory; as Smith fired a perfect strike downfield to tailback-turned-wideout Kevin Parker, who caught it in stride and used his speed the rest of the way to the Oregon 16 for a gain of 44 yards. A strike in the end zone to Donald Haynes was right on target, but it was knocked away at the last minute by a USC defender. A penalty hurt Oregon big-time as they were penalized 15 yards back, but on third down, Smith found Tony Hartley at the 18 to get back near the original line of scrimmage. Smith had done his part, leading Oregon to cut the deficit to two points and get them within field goal range. Oregon fans had finally seen the abilities of the athletic quarterback, and were excited for their chance at victory. It would now rest in the hands (or on the foot) of the other Smith… kicker Josh Smith. From 36 yards out, Smith would need to connect on a season long.
The kick was up…. as the ball was within the upright range…. but sailed literally feet short of the crossbar. After coming back from such a large deficit, the field goal failed and the comeback was blown. A USC defender appeared to get his fingertip on the ball (claiming as such) and the ball appeared to slightly change direction, but USC was not credited with a block. Whether or not it was kicked hard enough or partially blocked, the comeback fell just as short.
The Ducks flew home devastated. However, Oregon had learned that they could compete and had what it took. Most importantly, Oregon had learned who they could count on to lead them at QB position. Oregon was highly confident in the huge team effort they had just put together; knowing they had what it took to overcome and move on. A much needed bye week gave the Ducks time to prepare for the #6 Washington Huskies, and a huge day was in store for the Oregon faithful.
Never again would Akili Smith look back, starting every game the remainder of his career. From there, Akili was 11-4 as a starter; and arguably could have been better the following year had so many injuries to key starters not hampered Oregon’s success after being dominant beginning to the season.
[NOTE: On a positive note, USC even did a favor for Oregon the following week, as they traveled to Seattle to take on Washington. USC would end up getting blown out 27-0, but a costly win for UW; as two key starters for UW (QB Brock Huard and RB RaShann Shehee) would go down and cut Oregon a little slack in two weeks to come in their travels to Husky Stadium.... TO BE CONTINUED.)