Record-Setting Night For O’Neil and McLemore Set The Stage For 1994 Rose Bowl Run

FishDuck Staff History

It was only one game in a season to remember for the Oregon Ducks, a time when the dream that seemed beyond reach for so many years might finally be attainable. For two teammates in particular, it was a night that permanently etched their names in the Oregon Ducks record books, while moving one step closer to the Pac-10 championship.

Football is known as the ultimate team sport, so maybe it is not surprising that few on the sidelines recognized that in one single game teammates Danny O’Neil and Cristin McLemore had set multiple all-time records for the Oregon Ducks, during their 55-21 victory over Stanford in Palo Alto, CA on November 12th, 1994.  Individual records were not on their minds, there was a greater goal for the team to accomplish.

The 1994 season remains close to fan’s hearts for many reasons.  It wasn’t the year that began the slow road to redemption; that had occurred years earlier with the 1989 team reaching the Independence Bowl, but ’94 was the year when Oregon officially crashed the big boys’ party.

Oregon runningback Ricky Whittle perfectly stated the sentiment of the moment to the cameras in the final seconds of the game that night, “Y’all don’t understand, these Ducks are serious!”  It was the time when a group of student-athletes, supremely confident in themselves and each other’s abilities, changed the perception of what Oregon football meant, putting the state on the map and the nation on notice.

Yet for observers of the events that transpired, it was clear that for quarterback Danny O’Neil and wide receiver Cristin McLemore something special was working that night, both teammates displaying an athletic connection and understanding rarely seen before.

In the overall context of that magical season, the Stanford game can be easily overlooked.  Following a string of epic close battles, a blowout victory on the road over a 3-7-1 Stanford team was expected for the favored Oregon Ducks, but Stanford was no pushover, having soundly defeated Washington the previous week.  The Cardinal was a team reeling despite being led by a coaching legend, albeit in the twilight of his career, Bill Walsh.  Senior quarterback Steve Stenstrom was out for the year with a broken finger suffered in the game vs. Washington, ending Stenstrom’s collegiate career 4th on the all-time passing yards list in NCAA history with over 10,000.  Featuring multiple players that would play in the NFL, including Eugene native Kailee Wong and future Oregon Ducks wide receivers coach Scott Frost now leading the team, the hard-luck Stanford Cardinal had lost three games by a single point, and tied another, that season.

With the annual Civil War game vs. Oregon State coming up a week later to close out the regular season, the game against Stanford was a stepping stone to the Pac-10 title, and for the first time a noticeably obvious aura of total confidence could be felt by the team and fans alike.  It was in this setting that Oregon quarterback Danny O’Neil had arguably the best game of his career, throwing six touchdown passes, a feat that had never been accomplished before by any Oregon quarterback, and has only been matched once since, by Joey Harrington vs. ASU in 2000 (though Harrington required double overtime to do it).  Add to that Cristin McLemore setting the all-time Oregon career receptions and career touchdown receptions record in the same game, and this was no ordinary night.  The victory would also tie O’Neil with Bill Musgrave for the all-time school record for wins at 21, a mark which has since been broken by Joey Harrington.

The legends of Oregon’s past had flown in to witness the festivities, Ahmad Rashad and Dan Fouts both roamed the sidelines while Len Casanova watched the proceedings from the press box.  The largest group of Duck fans to travel to an out-of-state away game in some time packed the corner endzone, thousands of fans clad in green and yellow sensing the history that was taking place, by night’s end vastly exceeding the number of Stanford fans present.

“I remember some of the old guard being there,” said Cristin McLemore, reflecting on the 1994 Stanford game.  ”The guys from the lean years, they all sensed that something was changing.  We were focused on our goal of a championship, but there was a trickle down effect from them sensing something larger.  Ahmad Rashad and Dan Fouts were there, other legends of Oregon, and there were so many fans, I’ll always remember how many fans came out for that one.”

“The Stanford game wasn’t a change in team confidence, it was the last of a 3-stretch series where if we won we could get the title,” said Danny O’Neil, now a pastor in the Eugene area and the Oregon Ducks team minister.  “If we won it we’d be closer, but so much was on the line, we were already established with the championship in reach.  If we won out, then nobody could take away our championship, so there was added pressure and excitement to get the job done.”

Things immediately started going Oregon’s way early, the first pass of the game was tipped by cornerback Alex Molden right into the hands of linebacker Paul Jensen for an interception.

Oregon LB Paul Jensen intercepts a pass on the first play of the game.

Cristin McLemore’s record setting night though almost ended abruptly, as on the first play from scrimmage for Oregon McLemore took a big shot to the ribs and had to be helped off the field.  “On that first play I got hit hard, they fitted me with a flak jacket on the sidelines and it was hard to breathe, it hurt but I wanted to keep playing.”

Nothing was going to keep McLemore from having a big night, having crushed Stanford the previous year with an 11 catch, 230 yard, 3 TD performance; yet Stanford had long been the thorn in Oregon’s side, repeatedly preventing the Ducks from becoming bowl eligible, consistently a formidable foe regardless of overall record.

It did not take long for the O’Neil-to-McLemore connection to make its presence felt, as early on in the game McLemore was left completely unguarded for an easy 21 yard touchdown catch.  Chalk up one TD pass for the duo…there would be more to follow.

Oregon WR Cristin McLemore gets probably the easiest touchdown catch of his career thanks to a blown coverage by Stanford.

“The field conditions were so bad that day at Stanford, they always were,” McLemore remembers. “Everyone was slipping, I was worried about my footing too but we thought that we might have an advantage in beating Stanford deep with all of the misdirection and play-action we did on that bad turf.  I remember the safety came up short and I just shot by him and Danny lofted it to me perfectly, maybe they got their call in late and didn’t have time to line up right, or one or two guys just weren’t on the same page because I was left wide open.  Plays like that are so debilitating for an opponent, to not only score but completely embarrass them at the same time.”

Oregon’s defense continued its gang green tendencies from the opening snap, constantly in the backfield forcing Stanford QB Scott Frost to scramble running for his life in the pocket or outside of it on nearly every passing play.  Frost’s phenomenal athleticism bailed out Stanford time and again, picking up yardage on plays that would have likely been sacks had Stenstrom been healthy enough to play.  When Stanford’s line did give him enough time, he made Oregon pay with several long completions, but getting to the endzone for the Cardinal proved elusive.

The first half remained close, with Oregon leading 10-0 in the second quarter, but with Oregon’s defensive tenacity pressuring Frost, O’Neil throwing on target, and the running combination of Dino Philyaw and Ricky Whittle pounding the rock it felt like Stanford was about to break at any moment.  However it was in that chaos that Stanford found a way to strike back, when on a broken play Scott Frost somehow managed to elude seven tacklers and run sideline-to-sideline getting great blocks downfield for a 28 yard touchdown.

Scott Frost’s 28 yard touchdown run was the lone highlight of an otherwise dismal night for Stanford.

The game remained close well into the 2nd quarter until O’Neil found Cristin McLemore on a deep post for a 22 yard touchdown, their second touchdown connection of the night, to extend the Ducks lead to 17-7.  Stanford was clearly reeling, and nobody in the secondary could keep pace with McLemore.  Even when receivers were covered, O’Neil was somehow finding a way to squeeze the ball into tiny windows for big gains downfield time and again.  The touchdown for McLemore was the 18th of his career, tying Lew Barnes and Ahmad Rashad for the all-time career record at Oregon.

Danny O’Neil throws to Cristin McLemore for a 22 yard touchdown, the pair’s second touchdown of the game.

McLemore knew there was a bigger goal at the time to focus on, but he was aware of the records he was inching closer to owning, and the legends on hand to witness the passing of the torch.

“Having Ahmad Rashad there to speak to the team before the game was fantastic, it was interesting having him there to support me knowing I was about to break his records.  My cousin played in the NBA and is a close friend of Rashad, so it was great to be around him growing up and hearing stories about watching Michael Jordan and playing ball.  For him to do that, fly cross-country for that game to congratulate me when I broke his records, it meant the world to me.  If he hadn’t been there I was going to call him regardless.  He’s a family friend, an icon, and to get congratulations from somebody like that was special.  He walked up to me on the bench, shook my hand, and said ‘these records are made to be broken and you did it, congratulations.’  I look forward to when others will break my records so I can do the same, it’s all part of the brotherhood of being a Duck.”

What had been a close battle slanted decidedly in Oregon’s favor in quick order, as a screen pass to Ricky Whittle turned into a 51-yard touchdown, Danny O’Neil’s third touchdown pass of the first half.

Oregon RB Ricky Whittle was a master of disguising screen passes and picking up big yardage after the catch, here taking a screen 51 yards for a touchdown.

“Man, Ricky Whittle was so good at those screen passes, he was like an actor, he’d set them up so well, he was amazing,” Cristin McLemore recalls, laughing.

For the Ducks, the big plays were coming quickly now, things appeared to be getting easier as desperation set in for Stanford.  Shortly after the Whittle touchdown an Alex Molden interception again set up Oregon in great field position ready to strike once more.

Oregon CB Alex Molden intercepts a pass vs. Stanford, the second turnover of the game by the Cardinal.

Mere seconds later O’Neil would once again find Cristin McLemore near the goal line for the hat trick, their third touchdown connection of the game, O’Neil’s 4th overall.

“Cristin is a great receiver, we always had a strong connection.” Said Danny O’Neil.  “Often times we’d have a sense of where he’d be and what we were thinking, and we just had a correlation that night.  It’s not like we did anything drastically different, things just clicked.   I’ve had great games where I threw for a lot of yards and I’d only get 1 or 2 TDs, but things just went well for the team that night.  But honestly I was much more focused on the championship than my numbers.”

“That third touchdown was a case where the bad turf helped me, I caught the ball and turned and the safety fell down losing his footing in the grass.  From there it was an easy run to the goal line,” McLemore recalls.

Cristin McLemore sheds one tackler and another slips on the muddy field giving a clear path to the endzone for his third touchdown of the game, setting the all-time Oregon Ducks career receiving touchdown record.

The floodgates had opened, and the career night for McLemore and O’Neil by halftime was certain.  Stanford had actually led the game in total yardage, but their inability to finish, matched with untimely turnovers, had turned the game into a laugher.

This dropped touchdown exemplified the kind of night, and season, Stanford had in 1994.

Oregon kept the pressure on when in the third quarter O’Neil hit paydirt once more, finding wide receiver Dameron Ricketts in the endzone for his 5th touchdown pass of the game.  No Oregon QB in history had ever thrown for more than four in a single game, but the history that had been made went largely unrecognized by O’Neil and the team.

Oregon WR Dameron Ricketts pulls in Danny O’Neil’s fifth touchdown pass of the game.

“I knew I was having a good game, but I didn’t really realize at the time I had thrown that many touchdowns.  Everyone else was as excited because we knew we were one step closer to the championship, that’s all we cared about.  We felt like everything was clicking, we knew what was riding on the game.  It was just another game to us, one that we HAD to win.  With so much on the line, our thoughts were really just about winning the game, so when you play well there’s more a matter of relief that we did it,” O’Neil reflected, still unaware until the time of this interview  nearly 17 years after the game that he had set the all-time school single-game record for touchdown passes.

“Nobody on the team recognized that Danny O’Neil was having such a great game,” McLemore remembers.  “I didn’t even realize he had done that, we were caught up in the greater moment of the drive to the Rose Bowl.  Danny was never one to be about himself, he would never boast about such things.  It wasn’t about me or I, it was about the team, so no Danny didn’t get recognized for having what was statistically the best night any Oregon QB had ever had.  We knew he was playing well, we all were as a team.”

McLemore continued, “It doesn’t surprise me though…Danny had the most perfect touch on his passes, he could thread the needle like nobody else.  I used to play basketball with him and in that sport too he’d get you the ball on these crazy bounce passes where you’d be so stunned that it was suddenly in your hands, wondering how that just happened…people don’t give him credit for being such a good athlete.  He was able to float a football so well to let the receivers get under it, finding a way to put just the right touch on the ball like nobody else I’ve ever seen.”

Danny O’Neil had the uncanny ability to float balls that seemed to defy the laws of gravity waiting for the receiver to get open, here throwing to WR Patrick Johnson for a big gain.

The scoreboard reflected the dominant showing by the Ducks, 38-7, in the third quarter, despite Stanford chewing up big chunks of yards against the Ducks’ bend but don’t break defense.  Oregon was fine in bleeding the clock out, but O’Neil’s night wasn’t quite done yet.

With many of the reserves in the game, Danny O’Neil put the cherry on top of his record-setting night by hitting wide receiver Damon Griffin in stride for a touchdown, Griffin’s first career score

Damon Griffin’s first career touchdown was the sixth of the night for Danny O’Neil, a record that has only been matched once since in Oregon history.

O’Neil’s night was officially done, relieved by backup QB Tony Graziani, as was McLemore’s, and was it ever one for the ages.  Danny O’Neil finished the evening 21-37 for 339 yards and six touchdowns.  McLemore had 5 catches for 83 yards and 3 touchdowns.  In one single game multiple records had fallen in both passing and receiving, but both teammates barely reveled in their individual achievements, sharply focused on the Rose Bowl within grasp for the first time for Oregon in decades.

With the reserves all playing, Oregon would add one more passing touchdown, with backup Tony Graziani lofting a ball deep intended for Damon Griffin that instead got tipped right to Patrick Johnson, making it 55-21.

Sometimes when things are going good, they go really good!  A tipped pass falls right to Patrick Johnson for a 43 yard touchdown.

The few Stanford fans that had arrived to watch the game had long since left, leaving cavernous Stanford Stadium as a site for an all-Oregon party, and with the massive contingent that had made the trip south party they did, as well as the Duck players.

Cristin McLemore fondly recollects the postgame celebration and the sheer number of Duck fans in attendance.  “I remember going up to the walls after the game and it felt like we were back at Autzen, there were so many people wearing green.  It was amazing to see that many Duck fans at a road game.  It was one of the most fun games I remember playing in my entire career, there were even a ton of fans waiting for us back at the airport in Eugene at 1am when we get off the plane, that’s true fanaticism at its greatest.  It made us feel like we had already won the championship.

“We recognized that a lot of fans and alumni showed up for that game, we were getting the sense that there was something big here, that we were doing something that hadn’t been done for a very long time,” O’Neil remembers.  “The amount of fans at the game was spectacular, and when we got back to the airport in Eugene there were so many fans waiting for us to arrive.  That kind of support was amazing.”

In the overall context of a season to remember, the 55-21 victory over Stanford was a mere blip on the radar.  The legacy of that 1994 team was yet to be written, but everyone involved could sense it.  The atmosphere surrounding the program and excitement in the community was like nothing that had been felt before.

“It was a feeling, quite apparent and obvious.  We didn’t have to be reminded that we were playing for the title because everyone could sense it, it was there within grasp,” said O’Neil.

Oregon the next week would win the Pac-10 title in a hard-fought game in Corvallis, earning its first berth to the Rose Bowl since 1958.  The dream that seemed so close during the Stanford game had become reality.  The Ducks would lose the Rose Bowl, but that didn’t matter much to Oregon fans and players, the larger sense of history easily apparent that from this moment forward Oregon would never be the same.  O’Neil again performed in record-setting fashion in his final game as a Duck, setting the all-time passing record for the Rose Bowl at 456 and named game co-MVP.  It was one more notch in the belt for O’Neil in the record books, but he would be the first to tell you that doesn’t matter, he’d rather have won the game.

Still, for Oregon fans watching the O’Neil to McLemore combo during their time in Eugene, it seemed only fitting that on one night in November against Stanford the two teammates would set their all-time records together, their careers forever entwined leading the Ducks into the history books.

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