How good has the recent history of Oregon football been? It was a challenge to determine what the most exhilarating games of the last ten seasons were. Over the last three seasons, the Oregon Ducks have had four losses, yet only three wins by two touchdowns or less. Close wins have been few and far between. (Not surprisingly, two of those three made this list.)
What determines an exhilarating game? Of course excitement matters, and the bigger the stakes, the more exhilarating the game. A positive outcome is important, but not essential. For these rankings, it comes down to the best combination of how high the emotional highs went, and how long those highs lasted.
Using that criteria, here are the ten most exhilarating games of the last ten seasons:
10) 2011 BCS National Championship vs. Auburn
You may ask, “How can you lead off the list with that game?” While it can’t be placed above the more notable wins, this game is here for one reason: As impossible as it could be to watch at times, how gut-wrenching the experience and heartbreaking the ending, from the moment Casey Matthews reminded everyone why Cam Newton is an overrated quarterback to the exclamation point(s) of Jeff Maehl’s catch for two, Duck fans felt a level of pure exhilaration largely unparalleled in team history. Matthews’ play in particular was so amazing they put a banner of it in the Moshofsky Center. Forget the ending, those two and a half minutes were as good as any Duck fans have ever experienced.
9) 2012 vs. USC
While possibly the least suspenseful game on this list – Oregon never trailed – USC still gave chase for much of it, trailing by only three with less than two minutes left in the third quarter. As the Ducks won the way they had so many times over the past few years, willing teams down before running away at game’s end, the battle shifted from Oregon vs. USC to Kenjon Barner’s battle vs. the record books.
The year before, Barner’s close friend and teammate LaMichael James had broken the school’s single game rushing game record with 288 yards against a largely overmatched Arizona defense. Now it was Barner’s turn to place himself atop that list, and while this was not the Trojan defense of the previous decade, to cut up any school for 321 yards and five touchdowns, especially one still named “USC” was a remarkable accomplishment. Oregon’s control over the game was largely due to the efforts of Barner, who on more than one occasion found himself caught by Trojan defenders in the backfield to the roaring crowd’s delight, only to silence them by wiggling out of trouble for positive yardage. How long it will be before Duck fans see an individual effort of that magnitude again remains a mystery, though hopefully sooner rather than later.
8) 2008 Holiday Bowl vs. Oklahoma State
There have been games with bigger stakes, bigger opponents, and more dramatic victories, but I can’t remember any Oregon game with more highlights than Mike Bellotti’s final contest as head coach. It was a game with so many plays that Jeremiah Johnson’s 76-yard run, led by cavalcade of blockers, was the longest in Holiday Bowl history, yet is arguably no higher than the game’s third most memorable play, and that’s if you consider it better than these plays:
- Walter Thurmond’s 91-yard second half kickoff return
- Thurmond making an interception while on his back at the end of the first half
- Jeremiah Masoli’s two less-heralded rushing touchdowns
- Jaison Williams’ TD catch falling out of bounds to give the Ducks the lead for good in the 4th quarter
- Oklahoma State’s Zac Robinson getting absolutely leveled by T.J. Ward
The two most memorable are signature plays that remain visible in Oregon highlight reels are Jeremiah Masoli running over Oklahoma State safety Quinton Moore, and LaGarrette Blount leaping a defender on the way to a 29-yard TD run, willing himself the final ten yards. It may not have been a BCS bowl, but prevailing in a tight game full of highlight plays makes for as exhilarating a game as any in recent memory.
7) 2007 vs. USC
This game often gets buried, forgotten amidst the season’s tragic ending, as Oregon would falter down the stretch, while the Trojans would make the sixth of seven consecutive BCS bowl appearances. Many remember the multiple interceptions by Oregon’s defense, most notably Matthew Harper’s game-ender, but it was Oregon’s offensive production that is most impressive. While the Ducks only managed 24 points, tied for the second-fewest in a win by a Chip Kelly offense, a USC defense so good that junior linebacker Clay Matthews, who three years later would be crowned NFL Defensive Player of the Year, wasn’t even a starter. The Trojans, who made it close at the end, may have been in the midst of a run where they would define “elite” amongst college football, but the Ducks left little doubt that afternoon about who the best team in the conference was that season.
6) 2011 vs. USC
Wait, a third USC game? And the loss to the Trojans is the highest on the list? Why?
After nearly two years of mostly pulverizing wins with a few close losses sprinkled in, Oregon fans had no idea what to make of what was happening in Eugene that night. A largely deflated offense who had previously rolled through the inaugural Pac-12 season, found itself on the ropes late in the third quarter. Not only was the offense unable to find its rhythm, but the Ducks’ defense had already surrendered more points (38) than it had the entire previous game against the nation’s #3 team in Stanford. Down 24 with little more than 18 minutes remaining in the game, fans knew that Oregon was capable of the scoring speed, but would have to completely forget how they had played up to that point. The air was escaping the building in a hurry. Oregon didn’t need to score on the next drive, they needed to score on the next play.
Oh, we of little faith. De’Anthony Thomas’ 96-yard kickoff return would quickly remind fans why these Ducks are never out of any game. The Autzen faithful, who could have been accused of complacency in a season that had seen nearly all home blowout wins, was suddenly invigorated at the prospect of a comeback requiring the assistance of a full-throated crowd. Even a missed two-point conversion following the touchdown did little to pacify the crowd. After almost three quarters of evidence to the contrary, to possibility of victory was no longer a question.
The next eighteen minutes would produce a flurry of points and forced turnovers, fans never wavering in the process. Even when officials got calls wrong (and then eventually right, even though the play is right in front of him) Duck fans believed fully that this team, from what it could control, would pull the comeback off. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.
The only losses on this list, to USC and Auburn, were similar but made it for this reason: prior to those two games’ outcomes being decided, there was a sense that no matter how bad things had been up to that point, if the Ducks could pull it off, it would forgive all that unpleasant play that happened before. Those losses were tragic not just for the results of their outcome, but more for the way they prevented fans from a great memory that would have been gained by those potential victories. For those fans who watched so many Captain Comeback games in the late 90s and early 2000s – ASU in 2000, USC in 2001, etc. – games where losses seemed inevitable, only to have the Ducks rally victoriously, embedded this prevailing sense of not only a forthcoming win, but one accompanied by a dramatic narrative. To pair that with a mystique of the Autzen crowd influencing the game’s outcome made every game exhilarating, and it makes fans realize the potential for being spoiled by expecting such endings to become regular occurrences.
Tomorrow: Games #5-1.