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.
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.
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 play. Soon 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.”
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.)
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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!