On this day in Duck history, the 101st Civil War took place at Autzen Stadium. The final home game for 15 seniors who guided the Ducks out of the Pac-10 cellar and to national prominence throughout their careers. From the get-go, Oregon seniors made the most of their final game at Autzen. Senior Pat Johnson took the opening kickoff for what would be a career final day at Autzen Stadium. Johnson gave the Ducks great opening field position, as he took the kickoff at the goal line and used his track skills combined with blocks for a 59 yard return to the Oregon State 40 yard-line. Akili Smith returned as starter at the QB position, showing his great improvements from his first game at Autzen in September. After only two runs, Oregon faced 3rd and 8; when Johnson came through big for Oregon again. Johnson caught a quick screen pass from Akili Smith, and raced his way through the secondary to break two tackles and finish the job he started on the opening kickoff all the way to the end zone. The 36-yard touchdown pass gave Oregon the early lead less than one minute into the game. 6-0, Oregon (PAT blocked.)
Moments later, the Ducks gave their fans a scare. Oregon State caught a break following a punt, when the ball would hit an Oregon defender’s leg and be recovered by the OSU Special Teams Unit. Oregon’s struggling defense all year long had greatly improved, and would hold the OSU offense to a field goal attempt, thanks to a terrific pass breakup/near interception by Safety Jaiya Figurears in his final home game at Oregon. OSU’s Jose Cortez (future NFL kicker) was among the Pac-10, and would connect to pull within three. 6-3, Oregon.
From there, it became a defensive struggle for Oregon State as the high flying Ducks’ offense went to work. Native Oregonian Linebacker Garth White got a rare kickoff return, gaining 20 yards to set up the drive at the 50 where Akili Smith & company went to work from. In his final home game at Autzen, Saladin McCullough began to wear down the OSU defense, picking up where he left off the year before as he tore OSU to shreds in Corvallis with 100 + yards. McCullough ran four consecutive plays to the OSU 30. McCullough would be the hero on the drive, running into the secondary to the red zone on the next play. On the first play inside the red zone, McCullough ran an inside route where he weaved and spun his way through OSU defenders and would elude each and every one to plow his way 19 yards into the end zone for the score (at least 30 in the course of the whole thing) and one of the year’s best individual efforts. 13-3, Oregon.
Moments later on the ensuing drive, Oregon State (second-worst offense in the Pac-10) went for it on fourth down; failing and handing the ball back to the Ducks on downs… BIG MISTAKE. Akili Smith and company went right to work again. Saladin McCullough continued his success on the year by plowing his way through the Beaver line, already gaining 100 yards in the first quarter to become the first UO back to average 100 yards/game in a career. Moments later, Akili Smith showed his development on the year as he comfortably rolled back to throw, fired right on target, and calmly hit Tony Hartley in the out-pattern wide open in the end zone for the 21 yard score. 20-3, Oregon: as would remain the score to end the first quarter.
Oregon State would take over with fairly decent field position following penalties on Oregon on the PAT and infractions on the kickoff. OSU took to offense, but the struggling Beavers failed to move the ball. They would face fourth down, and the punting team took the field. Successful OSU Punter Mike Fessler had been good all year, but he failed to consider the danger of certain Oregon defenders. Renowned Oregon Defensive Lineman Saul Patu was only in his redshirt freshman year before his prime, but came out like a veteran on special teams as he broke right through the line and blocked the punt. Oregon recovered and took over with great field position (coming up empty, as the Beaver defense forced two sacks.)
Several drives later, McCullough picked up where he left off for Oregon, breaking tackles for YAC’s and making his way downfield. On the drive, the Beavers were anything but Civil, called for their third unsportsmanlike taunting penalty of the game, putting Oregon in the red zone. However, OSU began to get rough with Akili Smith, delivering hard hits, two sacks, and forcing a fumble in the red zone. They would come up empty and be forced to punt; but get rough with Akili on Oregon’s ensuing drive again to cause another turnover. The struggling OSU offense found a spark with speedy Tailback Jason Dandridge, as Dandridge helped OSU spark a comeback by pulling a Saladin McCullough-like run breaking his way through defenders 35 yards and into the end zone. Suddenly, OSU was back in the game just as any Civil War where OSU was there to fight until the end. 20-10, Oregon.
Many were concerned about Oregon’s ability, as this was a make-or-break game for Oregon’s post-season. The ensuing possession would tell a lot about Oregon’s chances for success in the game as well as post-season play. It didn’t take long for the Ducks to regroup and pull together as a team. Jason Maas would be called upon to answer OSU’s call. After Akili Smith had won the outright starting job the month prior, Maas had seen very little playing time. He would make the most of his second chance, driving Oregon right down field. The half was winding down and getting short, as Maas threw a bomb from midfield. Pat Johnson, already having a career final day at Autzen would add to his impressive statistics by beating his defenders into the end zone and catching the perfect strike from Maas for the 45 yard score. The Maas to Johnson connection gave Oregon the momentum going into halftime, along with a comfortable 17-point advantage. 27-10, Oregon: Halftime.
Oregon came out firing on all cylinders in the second half, not about to release any momentum. OSU had possession and began moving the ball, but faced a third and 1. Defensive Tackle Leie Sualua came out of nowhere to stuff the tailback run for a loss, and give Oregon the ball. Akili Smith returned as QB. Smith and Oregon took full advantage, gradually moving downfield on a long drive. It took time for Oregon to strike again, but they would answer by widening their lead margin on one long drive. Four third down conversions, a terrific diving catch by Pat Johnson, an Akili Smith option run, and impressive Saladin McCullough runs got Oregon into the red zone. On third down from the OSU 20, Akili Smith worked his wonders once again, as he threw a beautiful strike to Tony Hartley in the corner of the end zone for his second consecutive touchdown catch. 34-10, Oregon.
On the ensuing OSU possession, Oregon’s defense held the Beavers in check and a three-and-out in under a minute. Mike Fessler would have to punt again. This time, the Beavers prevented Saul Patu and company from rushing to a block, but could not dent the terrific Oregon return team led by the speed of Johnson. As if Johnson wasn’t impressive enough of offense, he quickly added to special teams by returning the OSU punt 75 yards for the score. Johnson’s late third quarter heroics made Oregon fans confident they were going bowling in the post-season! 41-10; Oregon.
The Pat Johnson magic was not over. Early in the fourth quarter, OSU was driving and deep in Oregon territory, when Junior Cornerback Eric Edwards made an impressive interception to foil a touchdown. Maas came in for mop-up duties, but Johnson remained in the game for his final Autzen appearance. Pinned deep in their own territory, Oregon was at its own 10 yard line—90 yards away from pay dirt. No problem at all for the speedster Johnson, who was on fire all game and up to any challenge that late November afternoon. Maas rolled back to throw and went deep to Johnson in motion. Johnson made the catch 35 yards downfield at his own 45, and put on the jets outrunning his defenders the remainder of the way. The 90 yard Maas to Johnson touchdown remains the longest touchdown catch in Autzen Stadium history to this day. 48-16, Oregon.
Oregon State rallied behind QB Tim Alexander’s rare 131 yards passing in the fourth quarter to score in its final two drives, but it was too late for the Beavers as Oregon’s “mop-up duty crew” would finish on defense. The celebration of Oregon’s fourth consecutive winning season & Civil War victory was on. The seniors (most of who were Freshmen the 1994 Rose Bowl) were sent off in style, and Oregon had finished its turnaround season in style by soundly defeating its in-state rival. VIVA LAS VEGAS... with the win, Oregon was Las Vegas Bowl Bound! FINAL SCORE: OREGON 48, OREGON STATE 30.
REMEMBERING 15 STALWARTS:
15 seniors were sent out in style. Their hard work had paid off a great deal in their time at Oregon. In their early days, many saw the abilities of the youngsters while the upper-classmen realized they would have to bring their A-Game to retain starting positions; much of why Oregon put together such a turnaround. The program would never be the same following careers of the memorable 1993-1996 arrivals, and they remain a valued part of Oregon Football History. In their honor, the 15 stalwart outgoing seniors to play their final game at Autzen Stadium were:
-AJ Jelks: Fullback/H-back/Tight End. Had an outstanding career at Oregon, beginning as a linebacker as a true freshman in 1994. Moved to offense in 1995, as a powerful fullback; Oregon’s lead blocker and had an amazing touchdown run in 1995 against UCLA bulldozing through the line and running over defenders for 16 yards. Moved to H-Back Tight End in 1997, splitting Tight End time with Blake Spence; finishing 1997 with five touchdown receptions. Jelks went on to play in the NFL for the Philladephia Eagles, before a knee injury ended his football days. Tragically, Jelks’ life was cut short at age 25 in a highway related accident less than four years later. Aaron James Jelks: March 21, 1976 – August 22, 2001.
-Matt Belden: Kicker. A starter three years earlier as a true freshman, Belden’s career ended in his first game as a sophomore. A very successful kicker and leading scorer the 1994 Rose Bowl year, Belden was forced to call it quits and had assisted coaching/mentoring kickers through his academic career at Oregon following his career ending injury
– Eric Winn: Fullback. One of the most improved players on the team, Winn had come from a long line of Duck veterans in his family (Harvey Winn, Dick Winn, Mark Winn etc.) The former walk-on had shared starting time as a fullback throughout his career, and was very successful his final year with the movement of AJ Jelks to H-Back./Tight End.
-Jeff Branson: Linebacker. Worked very hard in his career as a backup. Was a valuable scout team mater and saw spare time during relief duties. Remains loyal to Oregon Football to this day, coming from Washington to games and letterman reunion events.
-Garth White: Linebacker. Native Oregonian from Springfield, White was among the most improved players of the 1997 squad. Started 10 games at middle linebacker in 1997, and finished third place in total tackles with 63 (seven for loss.) Remains one of the most athletic to this day, serving as a firefighter in Central Oregon.
-Seaton “Chip” Daly: Offensive Lineman. Long before the name Chip was a renowned name at Oregon for the coach, a player was renowned to his team to the same name. Daly was an anchor of the Oregon line, and one of the most inspirational players. Persistence paid off for the former walk-on, as Daly was a starting snapper on special teams as early as his freshman year to earn a scholarship. Worked his way to backup under the veteran line in 1994-1996; finally earning a starting spot as a senior in 1997 following the departure of five veteran linemen. Remains very loyal to the Oregon program to this day, despite living in Husky territory where he works as a successful attorney.
-David Weber: Offensive Tackle. Oregon’s veteran and most experienced lineman of 1997; only being limited due to injuries to go onto the NFL. Began success as a sophomore in 1994 Rose Bowl Campaign; earned outright starting position in 1995. Started every game in 1996, and was the only returnee in 1997 (was forced to be a coach at end of season due to injuries.) Academic All-Pac-10 with very successful academic career; also went on to become successful attorney.
-Curtis Moore: Linebacker. Was a four-year member, working hard as a scout team player and earning time on field. Only hampered by injuries, but saw playing time. An inspirational leader, was an unsung hero on and off the field; and remains loyal Duck to this day by coming up from California for games and other letter winner events.
-Matt Nichols: Offensive Guard. Saw limited playing time in two years at Oregon; but was a valuable scout team veteran, and a player on special teams. Nichols was well liked by his teammates and coaches, and took time to greet young fans who came to practice in appreciation of their support.
-Trey Towns, Defensive Lineman. Towns was an unsung hero on the Oregon Defensive Line his only year at Oregon. Little known, Towns made a big difference in his on-field performance. The cousin of Washington all-star Lester Towns made a big impact in Oregon’s upset victory against his cousin’s #6 team; making a 12 yard QB sack. Recorded 2 tackles for loss, and was a solid backup.
-Jaiya Figueras, Safety. Figueras was a very under rated player in the Oregon secondary, only being hampered by injuries. Had his best games as a sophomore two consecutive weeks, causing a fumble deep in enemy territory and recovering for the winning touchdown over Illinois; along with a last-minute goal line stand at the one-inch line against the nation’s top running back to preserve the win at UCLA. Finished senior season second in total tackles behind Pac-10 leader Peter Sirmon with 90; had 12 pass breakups, three interceptions, and started every game his senior season. Battled countless injuries throughout career; but fought through each one to be awarded the Bob Officer Award for player with greatest resiliency despite physical adversity.
-Desmond Byrd: Defensive End. Also known as “Big Byrd,” Desmond was one of Oregon’s greatest athletes. A backup freshman the 1994 Rose Bowl Year, Byrd earned his way to a starting position in 1995 and never relinquished, only improving each year. The senior started each game at defensive tackle in 1997, and was eighth in total tackles on the year (the top defensive lineman in tackles.) A very gifted athlete, Byrd was a Pac-10 honorable mention, and went on to a long extended post-college football career. After the NFL did not work in 1998, Byrd went on to play in the Arena Football League, where he was very successful and a veteran for eight consecutive years until the collapse of the league. [Note: Byrd’s favorite play was his assistance of Jaiya Figueras and LaMont Woods during his sophomore year, stuffing Karim Abdul-Jabbar inches short. Byrd shed the blocker, retreated into the end zone, and made his way to the pile to be the third man on the scene to forget any chances of UCLA scoring after Woods and Figueras made initial contact. Though Figureas and Woods were credited with the tackle, Byrd was an unsung hero by jumping in to make sure the tackle was complete. Byrd was smart enough to stay on top of Abdul-Jabbar until the ref could see the ball, as Abdul-Jabbar was secretly trying to inch the ball forward; but Byrd’s presence prevented any cheating!]
-Blake Spence: Tight End. Spence was undoubtedly one of the greatest tight ends to play at Oregon. A speedy and strong athlete, Spence had a very successful career in all four years at Oregon—while not even being the outright starter until his senior season. Behind Josh Wilcox from 1994-1996, Spence saw a great deal of the field, and had a touchdown only four games into his freshman year. Spence set a record as he recorded a catch in every game of 1997, and a career day against Utah that season. He went out with a bang, scoring six touchdowns in 1997 and being an All-American honorable mention, First Team All-Pac-10, and awarded the Ironman Award for the player with the most playing time. Spence went on to play in the Senior Bowl, and to a career in the NFL for four years; where he even had a blocked punt touchdown recovery.
-Patrick Johnson: Wide Receiver/Kick Returner. Johnson remains one of the greatest receivers and kick returners in Oregon history. To this day, Johnson remains one of the speediest receivers to suit up for Oregon with blazing track speed (also running track at Oregon.) Having only one year of high school football under his belt, Johnson gradually improved each year throughout his career, excelling his senior season and being awarded second-team All-American. Johnson went out of Autzen with a bang; catching 200 yards receiving and a record 90 yard touchdown catch to earn him the National AT&T Long distance award. Johnson opened the 1995 Washington game with a kickoff return for a touchdown by eluding tacklers and going the distance for the score; voted the best kickoff return in Oregon history. Johnson returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, could have been four had two not been called back on questionable calls. Johnson’s winning touchdown against Washington in 1997 has also been credited by many as the greatest touchdown reception in Oregon History; now known simply as “The Catch.”
-Saladin McCullough: Tailback/Kick Returner. McCullough’s two years at Oregon were very successful, and began a trend of successful junior college transfer tailbacks to excel at Oregon. McCullough rushed for 1,000 yards + in 1997, and went on to set many records (since broken); including 15 touchdowns in 1996 alone, the first Oregon Tailback to average 100 yards/game in one season; 5 touchdowns in a game against Arizona, along with a stylish way to begin his outstanding senior season by setting an Autzen record for the longest kickoff return for a touchdown of 93 yards. McCullough earned Honorable Mention All-American, Pac-10 First Team, Pac-10 Special Teams Player of the week (for his kick return against Arizona) and The Hoffman Award—Oregon’s Most Valuable Player in 1997.