Decade Anniversary: “Captain Comeback” and Oregon Narrowly Escape UCLA

FishDuck Staff History

An entire decade ago, the Oregon Ducks traveled to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California for their final regular season road contest against UCLA; and a chance to finish undefeated away from Autzen for the first time since 1995.  UCLA had began the season strong and nationally ranked with impressive victories over Alabama, Ohio State, and Washington.  However, they were entering the game with a two game losing streak and looking for redemption over the high-flying Ducks of Oregon, who controlled their own destiny for the Pac-10 Championship.

Former Fullback Josh Line recalls the intensity leading up to the game.  “I remember the most going into that game: we as a team had fully rebounded from losing to Stanford, and we had the feeling back that we had prior to the Stanford game (going into UCLA.)  We knew if we could go to UCLA and beat them in the Rose Bowl, that would solidify our opportunity to finish the remainder of season undefeated and play in a BCS game at 10-1.”

UCLA was fired up and appeared ready to pull an upset, even with all-star Tailback DeSean Foster suspended for the game.  From the beginning, both teams struggled offensively; early on indicating the defensive highs to come.  Oregon received the kickoff, but began an offensively off day being denied anything on their first drive.  UCLA came up empty on their first drive as well.  After several possession changes, Oregon found a spark.

Joey Harrington

Oregon Quarterback Joey Harrington led the Ducks downfield and into the red zone.  From the UCLA six yard line, Harrington ran the option and kept the ball.  Greeted by a sleuth of Bruin defenders, Harrington appeared to be down, but somehow managed to break away at the three and dive into the end zone for the score.  7-0, Oregon.

Many thought it would be Oregon’s day from there, but UCLA answered right back on the ensuing drive.  UCLA did not want to continue their losing streak, and proved it with an impressive offensive drive to answer Oregon’s call.  Even with Foster suspended, Oregon’s defense struggled against UCLA’s powerful ground game.  Several missed tackles enabled UCLA to get into the red zone to the goal line, and UCLA would punch the ball in from one yard out with (1:18 remaining in the first) to tie the game and make way for a heart-wrenching game.  7-7, as would be the score to end the first quarter.

It turned into more of a defensive game than most people thought,” recalls Line.  “For some reason, the pressure was really on that week more than usual. UCLA had emerged as ranked team and was well prepared.  We knew a victory would catapult us into the right direction, but they were well prepared.”

To start the second quarter, Oregon would immediately respond, proving their worthiness of their run for the Pac-10 title.  Oregon initially struggled to move the ball, but would catch two big breaks to keep the drive alive.  Two consecutive controversial calls went Oregon’s way when an inconclusive catch/fumble by George Wrighster was ruled an incomplete pass; as well as a roughing the punter call when Jose Arroyo appeared to be only be ran into by a Bruin defender–giving the Ducks the first down.

On first down from the Oregon 35, Harrington would find Keenan Howry at the UCLA 35 for a terrific gain and an additional five yard gain after contact.  The next three plays of 35 yards were big for Oregon, and Maurice Morris produced all 35 yards of them.  Morris’s first run was for five and led the Ducks to the UCLA 30.  From the 30, Morris made an amazing run left, eluding tacklers and racing down the sidelines, appearing to be in the end zone after a great block from Howry.  Morris was ruled out at the one (in the days before reviewed calls), but Morris would punch it in from there to finish the job and reclaim the lead for the Ducks.  14-7, Oregon.

Oregon struggled defensively as the quarter wore on, but played “bend-but-don’t-break” defense to prevent anything big from occuring.  UCLA’s all-star receiver Brian Poli-Dixon would make a huge gain of 50+ and down to the Oregon 20.  On 3rd and 14 from the Oregon 25, Oregon linebacker Kevin Mitchell would hit UCLA QB Cory Paus as he threw, causing a popped up ball to be intercepted by Oregon’s one and only Rashad Bauman.

Oregon’s powerful offense, having a down day, would go three-and-out from there.  UCLA fielded the short punt at midfield, and Oregon appeared to be in trouble again when Poli-Dixon had another catch into the red zone.  But yet again, Oregon’s “bend but don’t break” defense came through big, stopping the Bruins within the five yard-line and forcing a field goal.  UCLA’s Chris Griffith connected for the score, 14-10, Oregon.

Kevin Mitchell vs. UCLA

Harrington and company appeared to be on the verge of another scoring drive, but were turned away just inside Bruin territory and forced to punt late in the quarter.  For the third time consecutive time, UCLA completed a long pass to move into Oregon territory and appeared ready to score again and take the lead into the half.  However, Oregon’s defense also came through big for the third consecutive time.  Steve Smith made a terrific pass break-up in the end zone to prevent a perfectly thrown ball from being a touchdown.

On second down, the ball was thrown for the end zone, when Smith came through again for Oregon and batted the ball away.  Cory Paus had an open receiver on third down, but Oregon’s Linebacker David Moretti made a terrific QB sack on Paus to retain Oregon’s lead.  14-10, Oregon to end the first half.

UCLA’s offense came out firing on all cylinders to begin the second half, driving from their own 20 to the Oregon 20.  Oregon again played the “bend but don’t break” defense, denying UCLA beyond the 20 on a terrific hit by Keith Lewis & Kevin Mitchell, and a pass deflection on third down by Quinn Dorsey.  UCLA was forced to settle for a field goal to make it a one-point ball-game, but Oregon’s defense retained them the lead. 14-13, Oregon.  The remainder of third quarter would be scoreless as Oregon’s only third quarter possession came up empty after on a long drive, and UCLA would keep the ball the remainder of the third quarter to move forward and begin a dramatic fourth quarter.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, UCLA had moved the ball 90 + yards from the Oregon five.  Conservative play by UCLA and blown tackles by Oregon gradually moved the ball into Oregon territory to end the third quarter.  UCLA faced fourth and one from the five to begin the fourth quarter.  A QB dive by Paus gave UCLA a First and Goal from the Oregon 4.  Three plays later, UCLA punched it in to claim their first lead.  Many UCLA fans wanted the two point conversion to give UCLA a seven-point lead, but UCLA Coach Bob Toledo conservatively opted to go for one (later proving costly.)  20-14, UCLA.

Oregon’s Joey Harrington was called upon to live up to his nickname “Captain Comeback” and lead Oregon to his ninth career fourth quarter comeback.  Oregon’s offense had struggled to find a spark since the second quarter, but Harrington came out fired up and ready to prove his worthiness for the Heisman race.  From the Oregon 30, Harrington completed his first pass attempt of the drive to Samie Parker to the Oregon 47.  On the ground, Onterrio Smith made his first major play of the day, eluding tacklers at midfield and rushing into UCLA territory to the Oregon 39.

Josh Line with the 4th down TD at UCLA 2001.

On the very next play, Harrington found Tight End Justin Peelle at the 30, who raced down the sidelines and almost into the end zone before stepping out at the UCLA 4.  Three runs got Oregon to the one, but Oregon failed to score to set up a Fourth and Goal from one yard away.  On Fourth Down, Harrington took the snap, faked the handoff to Smith, and found a wide-open Fullback Josh Line in the end zone for the score.  Line’s first touchdown of the year capped Harrington’s 3 for 3 passes on the drive, and Jared Seigel’s extra point reclaimed the lead, 21-20 Oregon with ten minutes remaining.

Line recalls his part.  “(I wish I could have a picture of my face when I heard playcall!)  The thing I remember most is, I wasn’t one to ever worry about getting the ball.  It was a play I’d run before in practice and I’d caught a couple in games; but with it being 4th and goal was crazy.  When the play began, the sun was in my eyes.  I turned and walked backwards instead of continuing forward–I knew I cleared the defense and there was no one behind me.  That ball seemed like it took forever to get to my hands.  Joey floated it, I caught it, and in that moment I looked up in the stands and felt really fortunate!

There I was in the Rose Bowl, catching (what became) the game winning TD, and I felt very blessed to be in that situation being a walk-on from Springfield who always dreamed of playing for the Ducks.  I felt more proud of the moment than myself and was glad it went down the way it did.  I couldn’t have dreamed up any better.”

Line was awarded Game Ball the following week.  “I think most people remember that game for me because of the TD Catch, but I was actually awarded game ball/player of the week because of my blocking that game.  When Bellotti awarded me the ball, he commented on my completions of blocks against bigger defenders and my preparation.”

Once they grabbed the lead, Oregon was not about to relinquish it and played very solid defense on the final two Bruin drives.  David Moretti and Darrell Wright had huge sacks to begin the first drive.  UCLA was at midfield, when Steve Smith (the league-leader in interceptions) came through big for the Ducks again by tightly covering his receiver and reading the QB well.  Smith made a huge interception at the Oregon 30.

Oregon was unable to move the ball and only managed to take two minutes off the clock.  A punt deep into UCLA territory gave UCLA the ball with four minutes to play, and  give UCLA a huge opportunity only trailing by one.  UCLA converted on third down down deep in their own territory, followed by another huge catch by Poli-Dixon at midfield.  UCLA would convert another third down at the Oregon 40 with just over a minute remaining, and appeared ready to move into field goal range and keep the ball until the clock expired.

Coach Bellotti vs. UCLA in 2001.

It was 3rd and 5 from the Oregon 34.  All UCLA needed was to get the ball beyond the 30 to be well within kicker Chris Griffith’s range.  Akil Harris ran to the right and made his way around the corner to see pure greenery in front of him.  Harris appeared to have the first down and on his way into the secondary, when Wes Mallard made one of the most amazing tackles of his career.  Mallard came out of nowhere, sidled up to Harris, and made a remarkable diving shoe-string tackle to pull Harris down by the foot for only a two-yard gain and to force fourth down.

The game then came down to a long field goal.  Without the first down, UCLA could not get any closer to field goal range and would have to attempt the winning kick from 50 yards out for the win.

The clock ticked down to two seconds when UCLA called timeout.  Oregon iced UCLA with their two timeouts, as the crowd, players, and coaches sat and eagerly waited for the next few minutes.  When the play was finally set and ready, UCLA took the snap.  The snap and placement were good, but the long kick sailed wide to the right.  The celebration was on for Oregon, holding off UCLA to keep its conference lead alive.  Final Score: Oregon 21, UCLA 20.

Line recalls the vibes following the game and the stories from behind the scenes.  “Whenever you go through a season, as humans you have ability to point fingers and get upset.  I don’t recall that ever happening in 2001, we all knew our own part.  As a reflection of our leadership, we all understood our role on the team, and that was the reason for our success in the end (of close games.)  On paper, we didn’t stack up like today’s team.  But our faith and belief in each other was instrumental in our success.”

“That UCLA game gave us the confidence to go to Civil War.  I really felt like I was on Cloud Nine after UCLA, and as a whole there was no stopping us.  The vibe from the sidelines was exhilarating.  We were so excited to win that game, I think that made the difference going into the Civil War.  We all knew we had the Beavers back home with three weeks to prepare, we were still thinking about the national championship, and you share the excitement with the fans when you put all that effort in and pull off the win when other team has momentum but can’t complete.”

ESPN interviewed Line following his heroic play of the game.  Line recalls of the interview:  Going into locker room, I got to do interviews from Gameday about my touchdown, but all I could think is that we as a team were still in the hunt for national championship.  The debate at the time was who gets to go, and I advocated for us.  Our exhilaration was that we had just bought ourselves another week in the national championship talk and deserved to be a contender.”

Oregon’s Accomplishments:

-Joey Harrington upped his record to 23-3 as a starter
-Harrington would up his career touchdown mark to 56
-Harrington completed his ninth fourth quarter comeback victory for Oregon
-Harrington, averaging 300 + yards/game passing, was held to 195 yards and only 13 for 23 (to Paus’s 321 yards passing)

Bauman and Wesley Mallard celebrate pick vs. UCLA 2001.

-Oregon, averaging 37 points/game, was held to their lowest (so far) of the season, yet walked away victorious.
-UCLA out-gained Oregon in total yards 441: 356
-Maurice Morris earned Most Valuable player, rushing for an average of 9.28 yards on only 14 carries on his way to a 1,000 yard season
-Josh Line was given game ball by coaching staff (despite Morris’s media pick for MVP)
-Line’s blocking along with go-ahead touchdown earned coach’s game ball award as the “unsung hero.”
-Oregon tied it’s all-time regular season record with its ninth win

With the win, Oregon would get a 21-day break to prepare for their final match-up at home against Oregon State.  As icing on the cake, Oregon State had pulled off a major upset over the Washington Huskies (who Oregon would not play that year) to give Oregon and Washington State first place in the conference race.  Having defeated Washington State, Oregon controlled its own destiny.

Washington would go on to upset Washington State in the “Apple Cup” the following week, giving Oregon sole possession as the lone one-loss team atop of the Pac-10 standings.  Therefore, Oregon would win the conference title regardless of the Civil War.  However, Oregon knew they would win the outright Pac-10 championship and have an outside shot at the National Championship with one more win over Oregon State, and remained focused for the next three weeks to prepare for one of the greatest Civil Wars in the history of the series.

Kurt Liedtke
Klamath Falls, Oregon

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