I would say definitely the Michigan game was one of my most memorable games, as they were so highly touted. I want it more than you do, I’m going to show your coach that you don’t really want to block me, you’re just out there posing. I’d just run through them, and there was a stretch where I went three straight games blocking a punt.
-Keith Lewis, on his punt block & knack for blocking punts
It was a time of transition during Oregon’s rise into the national spotlight. The Ducks had gradually improved by one win each season from 1996-2001 (from six to 11 wins) and finished 2001 atop the Pac-10 and ranked No. 2 nationally; yet had then fallen back to a mediocre 7-6 year in 2002. Starting out the 2003 year right at 3-0, a huge test of strength and talent was on the line, a decade ago. Was the winning and national spotlight all a tease? Would our Ducks backslide to mediocrity, or continue on their journey rising to the elite level of the college football world? Coach Mike Bellotti encouraged every fan to do their part, screaming as loud as they could, and to pass along to their neighbor to do the same. He acknowledged in his post-game show that they did their part, as it was finally as loud as the pre-expansion Autzen.
The day was a decade ago to date: September 20, 2003. A long awaited day had arrived for Duck fans, as the historic, storied Michigan Wolverines paid a visit to Eugene for the first time. Previously 0-3 against Michigan teams, all on Wolverine turf, Oregon had never even scored a point in the series. The No. 6 Wolverines, heavily armed with weapons such as veteran QB John Navarre and Heisman-candidate Chris Perry, came to town in front of all America through the eyes of ABC television. Iconic Coach Lloyd Carr, along with the rest of America, was in for quite a surprise.
Oregon took the opening kickoff. Gradually moving the ball down field, they consumed half of the first quarter by milking the clock for seven minutes (while completing three third-down conversions). A controversial call on third-and-goal from the one, held Oregon out of the end zone; as a Kellen Clemens touchdown run was incorrectly called down at the 1-yard line. A penalty nullified what would have been a touchdown on 4th down, calling for a field goal attempt. On what appeared to be a chip shot field goal, Oregon’s successful drive crumbled as Michigan blocked the field goal and returned the loose ball the other direction for a touchdown. From there, many thought Michigan would pull their usual easy victory over a soft Oregon team. 6-0, Michigan, without the Wolverines ever running an offensive play.
Michigan immediately had problems as the PAT failed; and Oregon immediately hit the accelerator. A long Oregon drive ate up the remainder of the first quarter, with Michigan leading 6-0 despite Oregon leading time of possession 14:04 to 56 seconds.
Early in the second quarter, Oregon drove the length of the field to complete an impressive drive. From the Michigan 20, Terrance Whitehead took the handoff and broke through the line to go 20 yards untouched into the end zone for Oregon’s first score of the game (and first score ever on Michigan.) Jared Seigel’s PAT gave Oregon the lead, and they were off to business. 7-6, Oregon.
Michigan attempted to answer the call, but could not dent Oregon’s well-prepared defense and 12th-man assistance. On fourth down around mid-field, an apparently intended fake punt by Michigan was missnapped, bouncing off the upback’s helmet and recovered by Oregon to give the Ducks great field position. Oregon made the most of their chance. Jason Fife came in at QB and fired a first down to tight end Tim Day in the red zone. On the very next play, Fife ran the option to the left. He made the most of big blocks and used his speed to sprint into the end zone nearly untouched. The leap across the goal was so big, it would later be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated to show the Ducks were no joke! 14-6, Oregon.
Michigan went nowhere except backwards on their ensuing drive. Perry caught a screen pass from Navarre, only to meet the tough LB Kevin Mitchell at the sidelines for a loss of six. On third-and-16, the big DE Devan Long beat two blockers and was there in the backfield to record a huge sack on Navarre for a fourth-and-30. A punt was crucial at that point.
Fortunately for Michigan, they handled their punt correctly this time. Unfortunately, things only got worse for the team as a whole. Oregon Special Teams standout and DB Steven Moore fielded the punt at his own 39 and ran right up the middle –an Oregon trademark – untouched for a 61-yard return and the score. 21-6, Oregon.
For the third consecutive drive, Michigan went three-and-out; having negative offensive yardage for the entire first half. They were unable to do a thing for the remainder of the half, and Oregon would run out the clock with a comfortable 21-6 lead.
Things didn’t get any easier for Michigan, as the second half began. As Michigan took the pooch kick, the receivers collided and pinned themselves deep in their own territory. Oregon’s defense held strong, as cornerback Justin Phinisee came around the end and recorded a huge sack on Navarre; and Michigan came up empty. A bad Michigan punt gave Oregon great field position in Michigan territory, and the Oregon offense wasted no time making the most of its first offesnive possession of the half; driving downfield and settling for a Siegel field goal to extend the lead. 24-6; Oregon.
On the very first play of Michigan’s drive deep in their territory, Navarre heaved the ball downfield, where Moore made his second big play of the day, reading the pass and making a beautiful interception at the Oregon 35. From there, both teams held strong on defense and held each the others’ offense in check. Michigan finally cracked the second-half ice with an offensive score in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 11, and with that the third quarter would end. 24-13, Oregon.
On the first play of the final quarter, Oregon lined up in field goal formation. A questionable call on a would-be chip shot field goal, Oregon opted to fake the kick and handed the ball to Siegel. He was stopped, and Oregon came up empty.
Michigan gained momentum and drove the length of the field, for the first time of the day, to score and pull within three; 24-21, Oregon. However, Oregon would soon pin Michigan deep in their own territory and hold strong on defense, once again. Long and DT Robby Valenzuala made a huge sack on Navarre. Keith Lewis would then make two remarkable plays; first breaking up a pass on third down. On fourth down, Lewis — already having seven punt blocks in his career – added to his remarkable record by coming through and blocking the Michigan punt, just using his strength on the punt protector and bull rushing him into his own man! The ball rolled backwards, and it was recovered by Jordan Carey for the touchdown to give the Ducks a cushion. 31-21, Oregon.
Lewis recalls the intensity of the play. “I would say definitely the Michigan game was one of my most memorable games, as they were so highly touted. Carey (true freshman) jumped on the ball in the endzone, and that definitely was the turning point of the game. Blocking kicks is more mind over matter, it’s more about determination than anything. I just ran through the defender, to the wing man, and blocked the punt with my helmet. I almost had a concussion, but I got it! It was more about determination than anything.”
Unable to move the ball on the ground due to a dominant Duck D-line, Michigan drove the length of the field again through the air, picking on CB Justin Phinisee and getting several first downs in his direction. However, Phinisee answered the call, making an interception deep in Michigan territory to prevent a score and give the Ducks time to milk the clock. Coming up empty, the Ducks were forced to punt with under five minutes remaining. Michigan drove the field and made it a game by scoring with just over two minutes left. Oregon, on fire on special teams all game, came through with more magic; as the big and talented 6’6″ Igor Olshansky, came through blocking the PAT – preventing a field-goal reachable tie fdor the Wolverines. 31-27, Oregon.
Michigan recovered the onside kick on an Oregon miscue, and many Oregon fans were at the edge of their seats with under a minute remaining. Oregon and its 12th man held very strong against the tired Michigan team, sacking Navarre and preventing anything major from occurring. On fourth-and-7 from the Oregon 40, Navarre went back to pass, but the defense and crowd noise was too much as the ball fell incomplete, with forty seconds remaining. The celebration was on, as the Ducks had taken down the No. 6 team in the nation (picked by many to be No. 1 going into the game). Oregon held Heisman candidate Chris Perry to 26 yards rushing, and only through the air had Michigan managed big yardage. FINAL SCORE: OREGON 31, MICHIGAN 27.
Lewis continues: “The funny thing is, it all comes from practice. I was going against the first team at practice and I’m always full throttle. That’s how I fought, I don’t take a day off, I’m going full throttle whether it is practice or a game. Once you put on your shoulder pads, it’s time to play ball.”
Q. Was there anything you did?
A. As far as the Michigan game goes, it was just one of those games everyone was really pumped up for. It was our first time against them, and everything that rolled on the game meant a lot. I had the big punt block, leading to the Carey touchdown. The energy inside Autzen was just amazing.
Q. What did this game mean?
A. All in all, obviously, it meant a lot to us, to the fans, to the university (as far as who we were, the reputation, the attitude, etc.) It was big, especially when it came to the polls & rankings and where we stood there. We climbed pretty high after (and to be let down later in the year) but to start out so good like we did was a victory in itself.
Q. Where does this win rank among others from your career?
A. The win over Michigan was huge. Nothing is bigger than our Fiesta Bowl win, but this is a close second, all in all. We made it to the cover/big topic of conversation of Sports Illustrated, and it was big for us to show who we were.
Q. Now that we’ve reached the decade mark, what does the win mean ten years after?
A. Ten years later, I would say this pretty much gives us bragging rights. What you see, what the university is doing now – they’re pretty much carrying on the tradition of winning we started. It’s especially big when you beat a team like Michigan because you get the recruits. Me personally, it was one good ride and brings back great memories.