Four years ago, we as Oregon fans experienced both our proudest moment and our most heartbreaking: a national championship lost on the last play of the game.
At the time, as much as we wanted our beloved Ducks to break through against Auburn and win the title, it was still hard to even believe the amazing heights to which the Ducks had climbed. We never got the championship ring that January night in Glendale, and goodness knows it hurt. But just to have reached the precipice of college football immortality was cause for immeasurable pride.
That Chip Kelly’s squad followed up its achievement with back-to-back January bowl wins (Rose and Fiesta) over the next two seasons further cemented Oregon as a modern powerhouse. Maybe we didn’t have a title, but those dazzling Ducks had become one of the great teams of the era.
Now returning to the national championship game, Oregon is clearly a seasoned contender. As hard as it might be for the superstitious and the pessimistic among us (yours truly most definitely included), we’re not just on the precipice of immortality this time, happy to enjoy the view. We’re determined and even predicted to go all the way. Perhaps the best part of the Rose Bowl was that it affirms how ready we seem to do it.
After starting sloppily in some early games this year, with a sometimes suspect defense and enough injuries to key players to fill an all-star roster, the 2014 Ducks have overcome one adversity after another and gathered strength along the way. A few months ago, the idea that this just might be the year would have seemed far-fetched. But perhaps it is precisely these trials that, along with the guiding hand of our beloved Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, propelled Oregon to this moment.
The past quarter century has laid the foundation. I can’t help but think of Bill Musgrave scoring the winning touchdown on a frigid field in unglamorous Shreveport, Louisiana in the ’89 Independence Bowl, Oregon’s first postseason game in 27 years. Of course thoughts trace back to Oregon’s mythical history-altering, transforming moment: Kenny Wheaton’s 97-yard interception against Washington. There is the dream season of 2001, culminating in Oregon’s first January bowl win of the modern era: a 38-16 trouncing of Colorado in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. Following that were landmark regular season wins against titans like Michigan and Oklahoma, and then the arrival of the spread offense in 2005 and its resident genius, Chip Kelly, in 2007, setting in motion the juggernaut team that calls Autzen Stadium home today.
But there have been just as many heartbreaks and what-if moments. There were season-ending injuries to star players that ended contention for Rose Bowls and more: Musgrave in 1988, Reuben Droughns in 1998, and Dennis Dixon in 2007. There were devastatingly close losses still branded on the brain. Remember the biggest comeback in college football, when 1993’s Ducks led Cal 41-0 and lost 42-41? More recently there has been not just the 2010 title game but razor-thin losses to Stanford under Kelly and Helfrich that cost us title-game trips in 2011 and 2012, and the aforementioned Arizona losses last year and this year, each of which seemed to perhaps signify the Ducks’ era of greatness was finally ebbing.
And yet here we are again, not just returning to the national championship game, but favored. Not just the Rose Bowl champions, but the team that ended the defending national champions’ 29-game winning streak. In only the third-ever battle between Heisman honorees, we are the team with, in the nation’s eyes, the good-guy winner in squeaky-clean, platonically ideal Marcus Mariota eclipsing the bad-guy winner of last year in controversial and arguably crime-prone Jameis Winston. We’re the team that has scored more points and gained more yards than any other in the annual Pasadena game that represents college football’s most storied tradition, brightest spotlight and hallowed ground. We’re the team that made a two-time national championship-winning coach and our opponent in the title game, Urban Meyer, literally jump out of his seat in his post-Sugar Bowl press conference after hearing Oregon’s margin of victory against Florida State.
More importantly, we’re not the rising meteor of 2010, newly arrived at a stratospheric level and, for all the heroism of that lost title game to Auburn, maybe a bit giddy just to be competing on that highest mountaintop for the first time. This time, we’ve long since shown that we belong. While we lack the multiple titles of Ohio State or the other playoff semifinalists Alabama and Florida State, we’ve proven ourselves over the past six seasons as matchless in college football. No team has won more games than the Oregon Ducks in this decade.
Just stop and let that sink in for a moment. From this rarified air, think back to leaner times like the ’70s and ’80s, when simply to finish with a winning record would have been cause for euphoria. Think back to the so-called Toilet Bowl of 1983, when we tied the Beavers at zero. Think back to the revolving door of ’70s coaches that saw the likes of Dick Enright and Ron Read shown the door after dwelling in the Pac-10 cellar, and losses by 60-plus points were almost common. Think back to how in those years the mighty Washington Huskies wouldn’t even acknowledge having a rivalry with the Ducks, because it was a one-sided affair.
You could think back further, too, and marvel. Imagine being a Ducks fan born sometime not long after the 1916 Rose Bowl win. One could have lived to be nearly 85 during that span and never see Oregon earn a single January bowl win. Only once every generation or so did the Ducks even get a trip to Pasadena, and only as the bridesmaid.
Think back, for that matter, to the days when we were on our way to becoming a top program but still had a long way to go. Think back to the 1995 Rose Bowl against Penn State, with Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky on its sidelines, with the undefeated Nittany Lions humbling our beloved Rich Brooks-led squad by a comfortable margin—as if to say, “Great job getting here, but you’re not quite ready for the starring role.” Think of Rick Neuheisel taunting the Ducks with his famous quip—“Scoreboard, baby!”—after Colorado defeated a great but injury-plagued 1998 Oregon team in the Aloha Bowl. Think of the promise of the magical Fiesta Bowl season in 2001 giving way to losing the not-so-glorious Seattle Bowl and Las Vegas Bowl and Sun Bowl. We’ve come a heck of a long way, baby.
Make no mistake: to wake up after New Year’s as the Rose Bowl Champions and a national championship finalist, all while led by the latest Heisman Trophy winner, already makes this one of the two or three greatest seasons in Oregon Ducks history—if not the best, even without the title itself. It’s important to savor how much has already been accomplished, be it this year or in the years leading up to this moment. Smell the roses and breathe deep.
Yet let us also embrace the opportunity we have on January 12 and how the game represents a well-earned culmination for this program. Let us embrace that Oregon under Mark Helfrich is everything we ever would have wanted even from Kelly. And let us think and feel and believe: it’s time for our Ducks to stand alone on the mountaintop, and to join the ranks of college football’s immortals.
Top photo credit: from Video