The Day the Ducks Stunned Nick Saban!


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It was a critical point in the rise or fall of Oregon football. The Ducks had clawed their way out of mediocrity (or worse) to gain berths in two high profile bowl games, lost them both and then fallen back to two mediocre five-loss seasons in a row.  Would our Ducks backslide to the truly bad old days of two-win seasons, perpetuate the mediocrity of the past two seasons or begin a rise to the elite of the college football world?

A month away from the 15 year anniversary, the day was Sept. 5, 1998. Even though the previous year had ended on a positive note, it looked like this season was likely to get off to a rocky start for our Ducks.  The No. 23 Michigan State Spartans, led by now-legendary coach Nick Saban, were coming to town to open the season in front of all America through the eyes of ABC television.  But Nick Saban, along with the rest of America, was in for a surprise.

First Quarter:

Tailback Reuben Droughns, making his Duck debut, wasted no time making his presence felt.  On the Ducks’  first possession, he took an option pitch and powered for a gain of 15.  The drive stalled and  JC Transfer Nathan Villegas, sent his first kick as a Duck through the uprights (to begin a near-perfect career.)   3-0, Oregon.

Akili Smith

John Giustina

Akili Smith

On Oregon’s second possession, senior QB Akili Smith hit Damon Griffin a 49 yard reception to the MSU 31.  A few plays later Smith hit Droughns on a screen at the 15, and Droughns powered into the end zone for his first Duck touchdown.  10-0, Oregon, after two possessions.

After a quick MSU turnover, Smith treated the fans to 3 for 3 passing capped with a shot to fullback Chris Young, who was wide open on the flap after going in motion.  17-0, Oregon.  All looked well for the Ducks, but fans who had weathered too many ugly seasons were still waiting for the shoe to drop, and on the other side of the field, Nick Saban was thinking, “That’s all right. It’s a rough start, but we’ll get ’em back.”

Chris Young, now a counselor to Oregon athletes, had this to say:

“We were running the ball so well in the beginning; there was no one there on that playSoon as I was running, I turned around and looked, no one was there. Akili Smith made a perfect play, and all I did was turn around and run it in.  It was a play action.  They started loading the box and focusing on the run, but I saw a hole and was wide open. It was the Big 10.  They were ranked, coming into our house.  We wanted to show we had a good time, and were searching for our identity.  Our offense clicked on all cylinders, and we found out a lot about ourselves after that game.  Not only did we lose the question mark at RB, but Akili identified himself as our guy.”

Second Quarter:

Bang! Bang! Bang!!! The Ducks got the ball back when Rashad Bauman made a great downfield interception.  Villegas connected on a 44-yard field goal.  20-0, Oregon.  The defense came through with another quick stop. Smith engineered a drive using both his arm and his legs, capped by a 15-yard strike to freshman Bobby Nero.   27-0, Oregon.

After another change of possessions, the Ducks put together a two play drive on a long run by Droughns and a perfect strike to Tony Hartley for a 53-yard touchdown.  34-0, Oregon.

Michigan State had  a chance to score just before halftime, but on fourth down senior CB Eric Edwards knocked down a potential TD pass in the end zone.

Six scores on six possession for our Ducks!  The fans were thinking, “Not just beating a ranked opponent, but totally dominating them?  Is this a sign of better days to come?”

Across the field, Nick Saban was thinking, “Who are these guys?”  (He had recently watched Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.)

Third Quarter:

Oregon kept the pedal to the metal.  Smith and Droughns put together another miraculous drive as Droughns powered his way through tacklers to carry beyond midfield, and Smith fired to Hartley to the red zone.  Moments later Droughns forced his way into the end zone for his first rushing touchdown as a Duck.  41-0, Oregon.

Later, Michigan State was driving at midfield when safety Brandon McLemore intercepted at the Oregon 25.

Brandon McLemore

John Giustina

Brandon McLemore

“I was a junior; had started every game since I was a freshman with many break-ups; but hadn’t had a pick until then,” recalls McLemore – now working for Nike in Beaverton. “I was in the middle, saw the ball get tipped, and I dove at it and snagged it right before it hit the turf!  I held it up, and was like ‘nobody’s taking this ball from me, it’s my first pick, and I’m holding onto it! I’d had the opportunity to have ten at that point after so many close calls.  It was great to get that nook of my shoulders.  Then, it was a lot easier to get those picks and they seemed to come a lot easier from there.”

Rueben Droughns in 99

John Giustina

Rueben Droughns in 99

On the very next play, Droughns went right through the middle nearly untouched, and bursted 75 yards for an amazing third touchdown of the day.  48-0, Oregon; to end the third quarter.

Oregon fans were thinking, “Go Ducks! Bring in the twos!

Nick Saban was thinking, “I don’t care who I’m coaching, I’m never coming back to this stadium.”

Fourth Quarter:

The starters were pulled for the first time against a ranked opponent.  Michigan State managed two fourth quarter touchdowns, but the Ducks held on for an impressive victory over a strong Big-10 foe and  proved they could compete at a national level on their rise to fortune and fame.  FINAL SCORE:  Oregon 48, Michigan State, 14.

Duck fans were thinking – “Can you imagine what would happen if Uncle Phil would only…”

Nick Saban was thinking -“Chattanooga. That’s who we should schedule.  Chattanooga!!!!”

Michigan State went on to upset No. 10 Notre Dame and even knock No. 1 Ohio State out of national title contention, but had some serious letdowns to finish 6-6. Nick Saban went on to coach at Louisiana State before moving to the Miami Dolphins and then returning to college ball to coach Alabama. While he has brought Alabama the last two BCS Championships, he still refuses to play in Autzen Stadium and has succeeded in scheduling Chattanooga for the next to last game in 2013.

Mike Bellotti

John Giustina

Mike Bellotti

Oregon went on to finish 8-4 on the year and began a stretch where they added one win to their record each year through going 11-1 in 2001 and achieving a No. 2 ranking. The Ducks have since had only one losing season.  Uncle Phil chipped in and the Ducks are currently riding a streak of five seasons of double-digit wins and a country-leading four straight BCS bowl appearances.

EPILOGUE: Memory of game from Legendary Reuben Droughns:

One of the scariest games of my college career! Big step up from junior college. Had the opportunity to watch Michigan State play the week before and seen the likes of Julian Peterson, Robaire Smith a lot bigger than what I was use to! The long run I had coming out of know where. I was glad it was a home game, because then I got a chance to see up close how great our Duck  fans are!! They made it really welcoming my first game. Of course I’m sure they were just as surprised as I was. Wow I had some great teammates at that time, thinking back. Kiki (Akili Smith), (Tony) Hartley, (LaCorey) Collins, Griffin, and the list can go on and on! dave03

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Dave Melo

Dave Melo

Dating back to his childhood in 1993; Melo has gone to Duck games, practices, and gotten to personally know generations of Oregon Football players. He is a historical stat genius of Oregon football, particularly knowledgeable of the seasons of his childhood/youth years from 1994-mid 2000's. A big Duck football fan, Melo is known by many former players as the "Stats Guy" for remembering statistics of games and each Oregon team through the years. Melo also has had a personal tradition over the years of e-mailing a list of former players during football season on anniversary dates of milestone victories in Duck history. The tradition continues with a large e-mailing list that grows each year, and to a much larger audience as Melo joins Fish Duck to share his passion of Oregon Football history that got the Ducks to where they stand today.

  • Jerome

    Wow…not sure how I feel about you having to go that far back to find a stunned Nick Saban. I would love to get another shot at stunning him but then again I would be scared we would do a Notre Dame impression.

    • Han

      Really Jerome? A Notre Lame impression?? You can’t possibly be a Duck and make a comment like that… you have to be a ‘Bama plant or simply a casual CFB observer to make such an ignorant comment.

      Sry bro, but can’t let that dumb of a comment go without a verbal spanking.

  • goducks58

    My dad (a Michigan State alum) and I went to that game. He was so excited to see his Spartans play and we were both expecting the Ducks to get beaten down… It was such a mortifying day for him I even felt a little bad. Just a little. Go Ducks !!!

  • not buyin it

    absolute Oregonian indignation! something you get from a population that has only cared about football for a decade-ish. This is an awful attempt at saying one of the greatest coaches of all time gives a flying **** about going to Oregon. To Bama your no different than Pullman or Corvallis. Maybe it has something to do with Alabama’s fanbase not wanting to go to Oregon because its like 4000 miles away. Autzen is a miniature version of Death Valley- Bama handles these crowds weekly..they just would prefer playing where its accesible to their fans. I’ve read a few articles on this site- yall have to step up your game if you want to have any credibility outside of the Beaver State

    • Joe

      YOU step up your game and stop scheduling teams that aren’t eligible for BCS play! SEC needs to schedule non-league games against foes like Ohio State, Notre Dame, Miami, etc. Stick with ACC, Big 10, even Pac-12 schools; and quit scheduling teams that no one has heard of.

      • ChiliDogg

        Let’s see…In 2012, Oregon’s OOC games were Arkansas State, Fresno State, Tennessee Tech, and Washington State. Maybe Oregon should step up their game before you criticize the SEC (which has played a lot of ranked OOC opponents, by the way).

        • Mike

          Note: Washington State is not an OOC game.

          • zduckfan

            Another Note: Kansas State was scheduled but pulled out of the game. For the record, Oregon will play anyone home and home, though there has yet to be a taker in the SEC.
            I’d also add that ChiliDogg probably thought Washington State was an OOC because the Pac-12 plays a 9 game conference schedule, while the SEC plays only 8.

          • goducks12

            Oregon played LSU In Dallas. LSU is SEC. The SEC does schedule decent opponents, the difference is they only play 8 conf games and 4 OOC games. If Oregon played 4 OOC games you can bet they would have one more cupcake like the rest. You only need one big game a season to stay ranked. Just ask Boise St. Remember SEC teams play SEC teams. Hard to knock AL when they play Texas A&M and LSU during the season. Only team Oregon plays that’s in the same league is Standford.

          • zduckfan

            Yeah, that tough OOC schedule for Alabama this season is a nightmare!
            Oregon will play the winner of the south, probably USC, so make that two teams. Arizona under RichRod will not be easy either. Go Ducks!

          • Chili Dogg

            Thanks for the correction about WSU, Mike and zduckfan. Actually, I didn’t think Washington State was an OOC because the Pac-12 plays a 9 game conference schedule, while the SEC plays only 8. I thought Washington State was an OOC, because who cares? It’s just Washington State.

          • not buyin it

            it might as well be.

    • Joe

      P.S. Not even a Duck fan, but if you really are that confident; tell your friends at Alabama to schedule Oregon. If Miami or Florida can schedule games against Washington; SO CAN BAMA!

      • ChiliDogg

        So how did Oregon do against their most recent SEC opponents, Auburn and LSU?

        • hoboduck

          My dad can beat up your dad.
          Go Ducks WTD

        • zduckfan

          They played well, in games that could have gone either way, and were as good as any team you’ll face in the SEC. What’s funny is how you believe Oregon is somehow inferior to the SEC. Arrogance and ignorance go hand in hand, my friend. It’s just good football. peace out

          • Chili Dogg

            The point is, win *first*, then talk trash, not the other way around.

      • not buyin it

        i think the point is…the fans dont want to go 4000 miles to Oregon…thats a lot of $ for a fanbase as large as Alabama’s

    • Idan

      He was at Michigan State then; so he had no credible team.

    • Jason Curtis

      I guess that sucks that your fans don’t travel well. The Ducks has a strong showing all the way out at MS ST a while back and at Tenn a couple years ago. Always proud that we travel so well. You don’t have much faith in your own.

  • whatdeduck

    The article says that the ’98 game Michigan State came to Oregon to open the season. The problem is, it was the opener for Oregon…Michigan State was already 0-1. So…the turning point was Oregon beating down a team that had already lost its home opener to Colorado State and ended up being 6-6 (finishing off the season with a 51-28 loss to Penn State). While Saban may not have played in Autzen since then, his Michigan State team did beat Oregon in the season opener the following year.

  • BC

    Hahahahahahahahaaha…. Michigan State.
    Oregon needs to come get them a piece of Nick Saban and Alabama. You game?

    • zduckfan

      I’m sure that if presented with an opportunity for a home and home series with Alabama, Oregon would accept. Can you say the same for the Tide?
      The playoffs are coming. I can’t think of a single Oregon player, coach, or fan who wouldn’t look forward to (relish, even) the opportunity to earn the right to play any team, anywhere, on any given Saturday, for the right to earn a national championship. We’re game.

  • Elbert White

    Bwaa Haww Haww Haww! Basing all your fantasies on beating Michigan St? What did a 10-3 Bama team do to the best Michigan St team of all time? 49-7. Bama doesn’t back out of playing anyone, and our fan base is considered one of the best traveling bases in the country. We would sell out all allotted tickets in record time. If you’re so hell bent on playing Bama then contact our athletic director. We just had Georgia Tech back out of a home and home. Maybe we can work you in. However, if you really want to get your asses kicked, then the simplest way would be to win enough games to get to the National Championship. If you can’t handle Stanford or LSU’s defense, then what do you think Alabamas’ would do to you! Bwaa Haww Haww! RTR!

    • David Melo

      QUIT TALKING THE TALK, AND START WALKING THE WALK! Auburn, LSU, and Stanford have legitimate reason, because they played us. We played all four quarters against all teams and kept it close, but lost fair and square. Instead of playing Chattanooga, why don’t your coaches and Athletic Directors schedule Oregon to prove it?! It would be one hell of a game if we played each other, and we’d give you a lot more of your time’s worth than Chattanooga even if you did beat us, so START WALKING THE WALK!!!!