The bright side of Oregon’s 1997 mid-season slump
Exactly fifteen years to date, Oregon had gone from high to a low as they watched a 3-0 start turn into a 3-3 devastation. Two of the three losses were games Oregon was in for the majority of the time, but lost control of at the last minute.
It was October 11, 1997. UCLA came to town rolling, while Oregon had come just short in a high scoring shootout down on the farm at Stanford, losing 56-49. The following week, Washingon State (who would go on to win the Pac-10 and play in the Rose Bowl) manhandled Oregon at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks were fired up and ready to show they were going to be no pushover for the Bruins, with the amazing Cade McNown at the reins. After a difficult first two games, McNown and company had thrashed the opponents by an average of 44 points per game, (scoring 172 in three games) and were the hottest offense in the nation. Even the storied Texas Longhorns fell victim to McNown and company, handing the ‘horns their worst loss in school history, 66-3.
The first quarter would be very dramatic — McNown and company seemed to move the ball at will as usual, but the Oregon defense proved they were up to the challenge, as they held the Bruins to a field goal on their opening drive.
On Oregon’s first drive, Akili Smith began to show he was worthy of becoming the full-time starting QB (he had rotated with Jason Maas all season.) Similar to Oregon’s current offensive scheme, Smith and company came out firing with option runs and quarterback draws. Akili ran a huge QB option run through the powerful UCLA defensive line and beyond midfield for a gain of 19 yards on the speed option. Smith would then make a negative play into a positive, as he would escape pressure and find tight end Blake Spence in the red zone. It didn’t take long for Oregon to answer, as Akili Smith would score on a 13 yard keeper run to cap off an impressive drive of 80 yards in 8 plays; less than three minutes long. Smith would rush for nearly 40 of Oregon’s 80 yards. 7-3 Oregon.
UCLA quickly answered, marching the length of the field in only one minute, capped by an 11 yard run by all-star runningback Skip Hicks. 10-7 UCLA.
Both teams were very fired up at that point. Oregon Senior tailback Saladin McCullough wanted to prove to his hometown team that he had more power than Hicks, and was ready to answer the call. Only three plays into Oregon’s ensuing possession, McCullough broke through the line and used his speed the rest of the way, going 71 yards untouched to the house and reclaiming the lead for the Ducks. 14-10, Oregon. The Ducks used all their momentum from the drive and pinned UCLA deep in their own territory. It only took three defensive plays for Oregon to wear on UCLA. Deep in Bruin territory, Oregon safety Brandon McLemore took advantage of a busted snap by UCLA and delivered a huge hit on McNown. The hit by McLemore caused McNown to cough up the ball, and there was no other than the great Michael Fletcher. Fletcher, known to always come up big for Oregon, made his presence felt as he scooped up the loose ball and ran untouched 15 yards into the end zone to make it a two-score game. 21-10 Oregon.
On UCLA’s ensuing possession, McNown and company rallied back from the 11-point deficit, as UCLA came back within five minutes to cut the deficit. McNown was not only known for his arm, but legs as well, which he showed as he ran for several first downs. After driving the length of the field, McNown went with the straight drop back, ran the pocket to the outside as if to pass, and tucked the ball as he used his agility to run the distance and cap the drive with a ten yard touchdown run to pull within four. 21-17 Oregon (end of 1st quarter)
The game appeared to be a high scoring shootout with the wild first quarter, yet the second quarter was about defense. Both Smith and McNown showed their athleticism, but the would be stalled by the equally impressive defenses. Smith led Oregon on an impressive drive into the red zone with several first down carries and screen passes for first downs, but UCLA’s defense held in the red zone. UCLA appeared to be on a drive to take the lead late in the second quarter, but true freshman Rashad Bauman proved his worthiness for the freshman of the year award as he came out of nowhere and delivered a huge hit on the slithering McNown, forcing a field goal. 21-20 Oregon.
Akili Smith quickly answered, as he led Oregon to midfield and on a downfield march. Tailback Kevin Parker went in motion as a receiver, ran the route downfield, and reeled in a 35 yard reception from Smith to get Oregon into the red zone at the UCLA 12. UCLA’s defense held from there to prevent anything further, but Josh Smith added a field goal for Oregon to even UCLA’s previous drive. Oregon 24-20, end of first half.
However, just as he was known to do, renowned UCLA QB Cade McNown led the Bruins to one of many come-from-behind victories. On the first drive of the second half, Oregon cornerback Eric Edwards made a remarkable touchdown-saving interception near the goal line for Oregon’s second takeaway of the day (as UCLA had previously gone without an interception all year.) Oregon tok over, but was stalled by penalties and errors, being forced to punt. UCLA quickly took advantage on their next series on a 40 yard pass from McNown to All-American wide receiver Jim McElroy for the score. 27-24 UCLA.
Oregon was unable to convert on a third down when a pass to a wide open receiver was dropped. From there, McNown and company would put the game away in the fourth quarter, as McNown ran for a touchdown and All-American kicker Chris Sailer connected on a 56 yard field goal to add 19 unanswered. Oregon watched a halftime lead turn into a 39-24 deficit. With under a minute to play, Oregon’s AJ Jelks caught a touchdown pass to close the gap to a one score game; but only an onside kick would give Oregon any life. The kick was unsuccessful, and UCLA would run out the clock. Final Score: UCLA 39, Oregon 31.
Though Oregon would come up just short, it was a positive turning point for the Ducks. It would be Oregon’s last home loss for years to come, as a remarkable long home winning streak soon began after, and they began their turnaround by learning from their mistakes against UCLA.
UTAH: Ducks put a stop to the losing streak:
Much to the surprise of everyone (except the most loyal of fans) the longest winning streak in Autzen Stadium history began with fifteen years ago against a talented Utah team. Looking to end a three game skid, Oregon was prepared to make the most of their chance against the visitors from Salt Lake City. Utah was ranked atop the Western Athletic Conference in total defense, and was in the national top 40 list in every defensive category. Oregon, still under the Rich Stubler Canadian Football League Scheme, had a lot of talent but ranked among last place in nearly every defensive category, proving the CFL scheme did not work on the college level. Sitting at 3-3, the Utah game would tell a lot about Oregon’s chances for success on the season.
All season long, the duo quarterback battle between Jason Maas and Akili Smith had continued, and no outright starter had yet won the job. Maas would get the nod against Utah. On the very first play from scrimmage, Maas threw a 60 yard pass to tight end Blake Spence to begin a career day for the senior tight end. However, Oregon would come up empty from there, and would settle for a 30 yard Josh Smith Field Goal to give Oregon the early lead. 3-0 Oregon.
Soon after, Utah began to take advantage of Oregon’s struggling defense, as they put together a lengthy drive into Ducks territory. The WAC leading rusher, Juan Johnson, began a successful day as he ran through the defense and gave Utah it’s first lead of the ball game midway through the first quarter. 7-3 Utah; which would end the first quarter.
Oregon took the ball to begin the second quarter. On their first possession of the quarter, Maas would find a much needed spark. On third down from the 20 yard line, Jason Maas to tight end Blake Spence happened again — one of the many connections between the two on the day. Maas hit Spence at the Oregon 40 for a gain of 20 and a fresh set of downs. At midfield, Jason marched Oregon into the red zone with three completions and an end-around play by receiver Ray Brust. On third down from the 15, Maas found Tony Hartley at the eight, who carried three defenders to the three yardline. On the very next play Saladin McCullough made the most of two blocks by AJ Jelks and Jed Weaver to rumble his way into the end zone from three yards out and claim their first lead of the game. 10-7 Oregon.
Once they grabbed the lead, Oregon’s defense (which had struggled all season) finally found rhythm and began to chronically wear down the visiting Utes. Utah was unsuccessful on their ensuing drive, and Oregon was given another chance at the ball deep in their own territory. The Maas to Spence connection would give Oregon a fresh set of downs again on a third down conversion to their own 40. Moments later, Maas threw for another tight end connection to H-back tight end AJ Jelks, who ran in motion and down the right sidelines, catching the beautifully thrown ball inside the five yardline. Jelks finished the job three plays later as he was open in the back of the end zone and caught a Maas pass for the score. In nine plays, Oregon had marched 77 yards for the two-score lead. 17-7 Oregon.
Utah responded on their ensuing possession, marching the length of the field. Defensive penalties on Oregon gave Utah extra yardage, but the Ducks held strong when it mattered most. Utah was at the Oregon 20, but the Ducks did not allow Utah in the red zone and held to a fourth down as Oregon Safety Brandon McLemore blitzed the QB and caused him to cough the ball up and out of bounds. Utah had to settle for a field goal, and connected from 30 yards out to pull within a score. 17-10 Oregon.
The Ducks went three-and-out and had to punt, failing to score or run out the first half, and the Utes made the most of the final minute. In 8 plays, Utah went 61 yards, but they would have to settle for a field goal, which could have been even more, had it not been for a remarkable defensive play by Peter Sirmon and Jaiya Figureas. Oregon lost its ten point lead, but would retain the lead as the clock ran out. 17-13 Oregon; Halftime.
Both teams were fairly even statistically at the half, combining for nearly 500 total yards. Utah led Oregon in all-purpose yards 252-246; but the passing and rushing yardage category were very one sided. Utah dominated in the rushing category 166-34 (Juan Johnson rushed 17 times for 130 yards and a TD for Utah), while Oregon led in passing 212-86. Maas was 11 for 18 for 212 yards. The second half would tell a lot about Oregon’s chances for success, as the previous three games saw Oregon play a solid first half, while making mental errors and turnovers to lose.
Oregon, not about to allow a fourth consecutive loss, came out firing on all cylinders in the second half. The visitors were completely shut down from the start. Jason Maas came out firing on all cylinders as he calmly hit Tony Hartley at midfield to get the ball into Utah territory, followed by yet another strike to the hot Blake Spence. Spence caught the pass at the 20 and used his wheels to elude two would-be tacklers and rumble his way into the end zone for the 39 yard touchdown. The touchdown was Spence’s fifth catch for an unheard of 175 yards and fifth touchdown of the season. 24-13 Oregon.
Late in the third quarter, Peter Sirmon proved his worthiness for his status as an All-Pac-10 defender, pressuring Utah quarterback Jordan Crosswhite to prevent a pass around midfield to an open receiver in Oregon territory. Crosswhite had to escape pressure and throw late. By then, Senior Safety Jaiya Figueras was downfield and covering his receiver. Figueras made a remarkable interception at the Oregon 40. The game had been clean and turnover free until that moment for both teams. Oregon made the most of their opportunity, as Oregon got beyond midfield when Pat Johnson caught a screen pass and did the rest by stiff-arming the defender for the first down. Saladin McCullough assisted Oregon on the ground on the next play, rushing with key blocks to the Utah 35. Maas used his legs on the next play, as he went back to pass, but tucked it and ran all the way to the Oregon 13, for a gain of 23 — his longest of the year. In the red zone, the Ducks made the most of their momentum, as Maas threw a left side screen pass to McCullough, who used his speed the rest of the way (very similar to Dino Philyaw’s winning catch & run in the 1994 Civil War three years earlier.) The turnover was arguably the turning point of the game, and gave Oregon all the momentum as they went 60 yards in only 6 plays for the score. 31-13 Oregon to end the third quarter.
Any fourth quarter comeback hopes for Utah were foiled early on. Utah drove the length of the field on the ensuing kickoff and made it into the red zone. On third and 2 from the Oregon 12, Johnson met Peter Sirmon right at the line and the rest of the defense joined in to push him backwards. On fourth down, the pressure was on, as Crosswhite could not find a receiver, thanks to great coverage. He had to throw at the last minute to a covered receiver, when defender Brandon McLemore nearly made the pick at the goal line. The pass fell incomplete to give Oregon the turnover on downs.
Oregon would dominate from there, as Maas got them out of the shadow of their end zone on a third down conversion, and McCullough used his speed to get Oregon to midfield and milk the clock. On the very next play, McCullough caught another screen pass to race down the sidelines and into Utah territory to the 25 yard line, surpassing the 100 yard mark of the day. A field goal by Oregon sailed wide, but it wouldn’t matter. The Ducks had the lead and all momentum with less than seven minutes to play, and Utah never recovered. The losing streak came to an end, and Oregon had new life sitting at 4-3. Blake Spence had a career day for a tight end, leading with six catches for 214 and earning Pac-10 player of the week. With the win, Oregon looked ahead positively, knowing they had what it took, and would be into some good things to come. FINAL SCORE: Oregon 31, Utah 13.