“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 (link is 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 beget 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 a 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.
- Kenjon Barner’s punt return fumble against LSU (2011): The play had a heavy impact on the game (as well as Tyrann Mathieu’s career), but had Oregon won that game and still lost the USC contest, both Oregon and LSU would’ve been 11-1 at season’s end. Despite the victory over LSU, it’s likely the BCS would have treated Oregon’s win with less consideration than the recency of its loss, and likely would have sent LSU to the title game. (After all, they’ve done it before.)
- Mariota’s 77-yard run against Stanford (2012): Many of the people who forget that a field goal at the end of that drive would’ve won the game, are likely the same ones who were doing the Big Balls Chip gesture on the very same fourth down.
- Ed Dickson’s catch against Arizona (2009): Huge, huge play; but had it been incomplete, it still would have been third down with five seconds left. Another shot at the end zone would have been possible. Also, it was not the biggest play of the game (see below.)
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 Fake 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. It now only 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.
5) Terrance Mitchell Strip, Michael Clay Recovery vs. Wisconsin (2011)
Why it was influential: Winning a game for the first time in 95 years is a big deal. In the highest scoring Rose Bowl ever, it wasn’t about who put up points, but who could stop the other team first. Making one of the most celebrated plays in school history, with a little help from the football gods (seriously, how does the ball just stop?), in the biggest victory in our lifetime is enough to do it.
Also, without it, we never would have known Chip Kelly wears ankle socks.
Why it isn’t higher: Oregon was up by a touchdown at the time, and had Wisconsin scored a touchdown to tie the game, Oregon still would have had the final possession to answer. The kicking game – a concern going into the game – had already been successful with Alejandro Maldonado’s kick earlier in the fourth quarter. Oregon would have been far from sunk in that game if they had the final possession.
4) Cliff Harris Interception vs. Auburn (2010)
Why it was influential: A lot of hand-wringing was devoted to the Michael Dyer call on the game’s final drive, but this call had far more impact. Harris got his arm down on this dynamic interception, but the officials ruled he was juggling the ball. One play later, Auburn scored its first touchdown of the game.
Why it isn’t higher: The interception would have been a huge momentum swing, and obviously the difference in points would have resulted in different outcomes. Still, that play happened early in the second quarter, and there were many plays between that moment and the game’s conclusion that could have altered the game’s outcome.
3) Masoli Lowers the Shoulder vs. Oregon State (2009)
Why it was influential: Had Masoli been stopped, Oregon State would have taken over at their own 31-yard line with 3:20 remaining, which was more time than the Beavers had needed on two of their three touchdowns that night. Oregon would only need one more first down to secure its first Rose Bowl in 15 years, and the first of four consecutive BCS bowl games.
Why it isn’t higher: Oregon was leading at the time of the play, and though that first down was significant (especially given that Masoli was dead-to-rights), to say the Ducks still couldn’t have held on to win following a turnover-on-downs does a disservice to that defense. Additionally, Oregon still needed another first down four plays later (Kenjon Barner’s run) before it could run out the clock.
2) Dennis Dixon Knee Injury vs. Arizona (2007)
Why it was influential: The second-ranked Ducks lost their Heisman frontrunner with three games remaining in a season with a wide-open national title picture.
Why it isn’t higher: It’s universally assumed that had Dixon stayed healthy, Oregon wins the National Championship. While Oregon was visibly the best team in the country that season, it’s also incredibly assumptive to just hand the Ducks the title based solely on a healthy Dixon. Oregon was rife with injuries that season, losing several starters for the entire season. While beating Arizona, UCLA, and Oregon State isn’t a far-fetched assumption, to assume they would convincingly roll an Ohio State team (LSU, the eventual national champion, was ranked #2 at season’s end) that had played in that very game the year prior is far from certain. Luck plays more of a part in determining champions that it is given credit for, even in a sport with as selective a postseason as college football. Fans romanticize the notion of the injury robbing the Ducks of a title, but the fact that we will never experience the alternate scenario makes it easy to do so.
1) Nate Costa Gets The Hold Down vs. Arizona (2009)
Why it was influential: Unlike the other plays listed above, there would have been no opportunity for redemption in that game had the play gone any other way. If the kick been blocked, Oregon would have had to onside kick with six seconds remaining, hope they recovered it, and then tried a Hail Mary at game’s end. They wouldn’t have been close enough for a field goal, nor had enough time to get into field goal position. They would have been dead in the water, and the miraculous rally up to that point would have been for naught, relegated to the list of most tragic endings to a football game.
Why it’s #1: Every play above has some wiggle room about what potentially could have happened had an alternate scenario occurred. The result of this play made the game’s outcome binary; either Oregon wins or loses on that play. Here’s what I wrote last year about what would have happened had Costa not gotten the extra point down:
Whether the snap was bobbled or the kick blocked (when watching the replay it is stunning that it wasn’t blocked with two Arizona defenders seemingly on top of the kick), Oregon fails to get the tying point, losing 31-30. The first “for the Rose Bowl” Civil War game doesn’t happen (and the only Civil War of its kind, since the divisional structure prevents the game from having those stakes again), while 9-3 Arizona, who would prevail in the following weeks against Arizona State and USC, would go to the Rose Bowl.
Oregon would likely have played in its second straight Holiday Bowl, and maybe doesn’t find the motivation necessary to get to the National Championship in 2010, making the Rose Bowl the focus instead. While the Ducks surprise early on by starting 10-0, a team whose preseason preparation was on the Rose Bowl and not the National Championship gets surprised at Cal in week 12, but having the tiebreaker with Stanford allows Oregon to still play in the Rose Bowl, their preseason goal.
Don’t think it can happen? That’s exactly what happened this season  against USC. With the Pac-12 title all but secured the week before against Stanford, Oregon came out flat and USC found just enough to beat them.
Unprepared for the big stage after playing in its first BCS game in nine years, (remember in this scenario the Ducks missed the Rose Bowl the previous year), Wisconsin finds a way to beat Oregon in similar fashion to how Ohio State did 2010. Now let’s say 2011 plays out the same way, Wisconsin meets Oregon in the Rose Bowl, only now Wisconsin has the upper hand of knowing how to beat the Ducks and uses that advantage to pull off another victory in Pasadena.
Instead of two Rose Bowls (including a win) and a National Championship appearance, the situation instead is two Rose Bowl losses and Oregon is now waiting 96 years for its first Rose Bowl victory, all because of an extra point.
With that extraordinary salvage of a routine play, the historical arc of a program was forever altered. Oregon became one of only four schools in the BCS era to play in four straight BCS bowl games, an accomplishment that required a basic extra point against Arizona to achieve. They say no single play determines whether a team wins or loses, but some plays are influential enough to change the direction of a program forever.