“Life’s this game of inches…so is football…because, in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small…one half a step too late, or too early, and you don’t quite make it, one half second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it, the inches we need are everywhere around us… they’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second…“
- Coach Tony D’Amato’s Peace by Inches speech from Any Given Sunday
Ok, it might be a tired reference to quote from the most famous speech (NSFW language) from any football movie, but there’s a reason it became tired in the first place: because it sums up the breaks of football. It fuels the arguments and the what-ifs, the realization of how closely a team’s long-term fortune and reputation can change on the smallest margins. The inches beget the plays beget the games which begets history. In a sport where reputation influences the acquisition of personnel more than any other, the inches do matter.
Inches may be the smallest unit of influence, but they are also the hardest to measure. Coaches will tell you that no single play determines the outcome of a game, and while that is true, there are certainly some that have more influence than others on its outcome.
How do we determine influence? Influence is the measurement of the difference between the result of original outcome and the potential result of an alternative outcome. For Oregon, the greatest example of this is “The Pick”. It was significant not only for its long-term outcome: Oregon winning the conference for the first time in 37 years, flipping the switch on the Oregon-Washington Rivalry, gave Autzen Stadium its DuckVision punctuation for the next two decades, but the play itself was significant to the outcome of the game.
Many plays went into that Oregon 31-20 victory, but if Wheaton doesn’t step in front of the pass, it’s likely the game-winning touchdown for Washington. The big picture result is just a magnification of the play itself; even if the game was lost to the ages, only watched in the film room, it still was the play the game turned on, whose alternate outcome would’ve resulted in a completely different ending.
Some notes on this list:
- I omitted kicks, because there’s so much that precedes any kick, and because talking about a missed field goal is an exercise in banality.
- These are plays where an Oregon player made a play rather than a play happening to Oregon. For instance, you won’t see Michael Dyer’s run on here, because he would historically be the focus of that play more than any Oregon player. Also, Eddie Pleasant tackled him.
Here are the ten most influential plays from Oregon football over the last ten seasons (year in parentheses is the season, not the calendar year):
10) Dennis Dixon’s Statue of Liberty vs. Michigan (2007)
Why it was influential: Piggybacking off a different Statue of Liberty execution – a handoff to Jonathan Stewart – on the previous series, this ended up the signature play that announced to the country that this offense was going to be something special.
Why it isn’t higher: While an impressive statement, given the historical relevancy of the opponent and its display of the innovative nature of the offense; it still came in a 32-point blowout. The play’s impact came more as a symbol for the shift in the program’s perceptions, but wasn’t a make-or-break play for the game.
9) Missed Exchange between Masoli & Blount vs. Ohio State (2009)
Why it was influential: After trailing most of the game, Oregon took its first lead, 17-16, on the previous possession. Ohio State managed only a field goal on the following possession, meaning a touchdown here would have given Oregon a 24-19 lead, having scored 14 of those points in less than five minutes. Ohio State would have been on their heels, and would’ve negated their defense’s strength of playing with a lead. Instead Oregon, who had spent too much of the game playing from behind, had their momentum broken by this play.
Why it isn’t higher: While an absolutely crushing loss at the time, the 2012 Rose Bowl has become quite the salve for this game. Had Oregon not won a Rose Bowl less than 18 months ago, maybe fans linger on this one more. Instead, it now serves merely as an unfortunate end to a terrific season.
8) Keith Lewis Punt Block vs. Michigan (2003)
Why it was influential: In a game where the Ducks went out to a big first half lead before appearing to hold on for dear life until the clock struck zero, this was the one play that managed to push the game just far enough out of reach in Oregon’s favor. The win itself was enormous for the reputation of both the school, who showed they could beat a top-five team from a storied program, and Autzen Stadium, which discovered new highs of potential for fan impact, as well as getting Lloyd Carr to produce one of the stadium’s most oft-referenced quotes.
Why it isn’t higher: Despite the profile and reputation the win brought, Sports Illustrated cover and all, the Ducks finished 2003 with an 8-5 record, a Sun Bowl loss, and three more losses by more than 30 points. That’s not was you would call a “program-shifting year.”
7) Matthew Harper’s Game-Ending INT vs. USC (2007)
Why it was influential: USC had needed only 48 seconds to score a touchdown on its previous possession, and after forcing a three-and-out from the Ducks was looking to tie the game on the drive, which was on its 11th play at the time of Harper’s interception. The win was first for Oregon since USC’s resurrection (although they did beat Pete Carroll in 2001), and showed they would compete with the conference’s elite going forward.
Why it isn’t higher: Unfortunately, the sad ending to 2007 diminished the significance of many of the amazing accomplishments from that season. Few doubted that Oregon was conference’s premier team after this contest, yet the Trojans won the conference.
Also, watching Mark Sanchez throw into triple coverage is funny in retrospect, but gives the play a feel of “low-hanging fruit.”
6) Cliff Harris Punt Return vs. Cal (2010)
Why it was influential: The Ducks were held scoreless in offense in the first half, yet were able to take a lead it never relinquished thanks to Harris (and a subsequent two-point conversion.) As much as Oregon’s struggles on offense could have tripped them up in the end had a couple plays gone the other way (Harris’ return, Tavecchio’s penalty), being able to play with a lead was instrumental to the Ducks being able to sneak out of Berkeley alive.
Why it isn’t higher: First, it came in the second quarter. Yes, I know I just spent a paragraph talking about how important it was for the Ducks to play with a lead. However, it was a game where the Ducks were in “just enough” mode, as exampled by the offense going scoreless for the first 30 minutes, but having no problem scoring in 30 seconds to start the second half.
Second, the Harris touchdown was valuable in terms of momentum, but as far as its value in points, Oregon easily could have scored on the game’s final drive, if necessary, instead choosing to run out the clock; because again, the Ducks’ offense, despite doing just enough, were doing whatever they wanted to the Cal defense by game’s end. The Bears may have held Oregon to the third fewest points during the Chip Kelly era, but they still weren’t better than an Oregon offense that did whatever it wanted in the final nine and a half minutes.
For part 2, with plays #5-1, read it here.