Beloved stars Akili Smith, Pat Johnson, and Saladin McCullough shined brightly among the glit of “the strip” of Las Vegas at this time fifteen years ago. To this day, no game in Oregon football history compares to the explosive opening of the 1997 Las Vegas Bowl. Despite their success over the past two decades, no other Oregon game began with the Ducks exploding on their first two plays from scrimmage with two consecutive touchdowns with plays that still delight Oregon fans on YouTube to this day.
Approximately 15 years ago on December 20, 1997, the classic Elvis Presley hit “Viva Las Vegas” had a special meaning to the Oregon Duck faithful. Their beloved Ducks were headed to Las Vegas for the week to enjoy one of the world’s most renowned areas and play in the very first game of the 1997 postseason. Prior to the start of the game, the ESPN announcing crew informed watchers of the “something’s gotta give.” Air Force had held opponents to under 20 points/game, while Oregon’s high-flying offense was the best Air Force had faced all season. Meanwhile, Oregon’s defense had struggled all year, being ranked dead last in many categories under the defensive coordinator/CFL-minded Rich Stubler. Air Force was very successful at moving the ball all year, and the wishbone attack was a major threat to Oregon’s struggling defense. Many expected it to be a major defensive struggle for Oregon, as the high flying #25 Falcons of Air Force were the heavy favorite.
The game was soon underway. Oregon Quarterback Akili Smith had come a long way in his first year at Oregon, and proved it from the get-go. On Smith’s first play as Duck to open 1997, he was sacked. On Smith’s first play of the Las Vegas Bowl, his 180-turnaround showed immediately. Smith rolled back to throw from his own 30 and fired a strike to All-Pac-10 receiver/speedster Patrick Johnson deep downfield at the Air Force 30. Johnson made the catch and sprinted 69 yards untouched into the end zone for the first score from scrimmage. 7-0, Oregon.
Oregon fans had longed for the return of their renowned “Gang Green” Defense (1994-1995), which was among the Pac-10’s best under Nick Aliotti in 1994 and Charlie Watters in 1995. After a two year hiatus, many of the juniors and seniors who were underclassmen in the “Gang Green” days surprisingly showed they still had it in them, despite the struggles of the changed defensive scheme. Air Force attempted to strike the same way on their first play from scrimmage, but Oregon’s defense was up to the challenge. The first pass lofted way down field was on target, but beautifully batted away by Oregon Cornerback Eric Edwards. The next two plays were the typical Falcon wishbone runs, but Oregon read the option very well and foiled their first drive immediately to force a punt.
Oregon took over at their own 24. Those who were eager to see Oregon put together a long drive would again have to wait, as Oregon’s offensive magic struck again on the game’s second play from scrimmage. Akili Smith took the snap and immediately handed off to Saladin McCullough. The senior tailback took the ball and made a cutback through the left side of the line, breaking into the secondary. Using his speed to elude defenders, he went 76 yards untouched into the end zone for the score. Just as McCullough would score on his first touch of the ball in the first game of his senior year (returning the opening kickoff), McCullough would do the same in his final game as a Duck. In the process, McCullough broke the Oregon career record held by Bobby Moore (Ahmad Rashad) for the most yards rushing in one season. Two plays, two scores, and 145 yards total offense for Oregon (to ZERO for Air Force.) 13-0, Oregon.
Air Force, favored and not used to being down, had to figure out how to rally from an unexpected early deficit less than three minutes into the game. They would take over from their own 25. All season, Oregon’s defense had struggled to stop the run, and the wishbone offense was a huge concern for them. The confident Oregon defense had worked hard in preparation and stunned Air Force by stuffing three of four runs right at the line in gang-tackling formation. The Falcons would come up empty and be forced to punt for the second consecutive time.
On the next series, Akili Smith guided Oregon to midfield; but penalties would nullify a first down and Oregon would soon have to punt. The Falcons gave themselves good field position with a return to midfield, and had many wondering if it was going to become within a one score game. Running the option did not victimize the previously struggling Ducks, as senior safety & stalwart Jaiya Figueras read the play beautifully and was there in the backfield to greet the rusher for a loss of three. Running up the middle was no solution either, as the Pac-10’s leader in tackles Peter Sirmon and senior Eugene-area native Garth White were there to stuff for no gain. Air Force then attempted to force a first down through the air; but bombs away — the pass fell incomplete and the drive ended.
The combination of Akili Smith, Pat Johnson, and Saladin McCullough equalled first downs and big plays on the drive to come. Starting at their own 20, Smith fired to the hot Pat Johnson for a fresh set of downs. Soon after, McCullough showed his running abilities to the nation to be much more powerful than the renowned Air Force running game; cutting up to the right and down the sidelines through defenders. From the 40 Smith then ran to his right for a gain of 12 and beyond midfield for another set of downs. In the process, Oregon eclipsed the 200 yard mark in the first quarter. However, Oregon was unable to score, and Air Force would take over late in the first quarter deep in their own territory.
Air Force’s ground force would be slowed to a crawl as the option once again failed. An option run to the left was stuffed again by Figueras and Michael Fletcher. Soon after, Air Force managed a first down, but a double reverse end-around was fumbled (and saved) by the Falcons to foil a possible touchdown and only get a mere first down. Moments later, White and Sirmon teamed up again to stop an option sweep and prevent a gain to midfield. On third down, true freshman cornerback Rashad Bauman’s coverage was played out beautifully to prevent a third down conversion.
In the process, Air Force would have to punt as the first quarter wound down. The return of “Gang Green” for the first time in two years was seen around the College Football nation, as Oregon had held the high-powered Air Force Offense to less than fifty yards rushing, zero yards passing, and never beyond midfield all quarter. With that, Oregon took over and the first quarter would end with Oregon dominating. 13-0, Oregon.
To begin the second quarter, Oregon took the ball but was pinned deep in their own territory. Air Force attempted to answer back on their first play of the quarter. After realizing their rushing attack wasn’t going to work against the high powered Ducks, Air Force’s QB Blaine Morgan attempted an air strike. The perfectly thrown ball was right to his receiver, but Rashad Bauman was there again to knock the ball to the ground at the last minute and prevent a touchdown on third down. A fourth down pass covered by Bauman and Fletcher fell incomplete, and Oregon stopped Air Force’s powerful attack yet again on their first possession of the second quarter.
Jason Maas would get his chance to shine at QB. After Smith had become the outright starter late in the season, Maas worked hard to see limited playing time to finish out his successful start of the season (starting five games earlier in the year). Maas picked up where he left off, escaping pressure and running to an impressive first down for 15 yards on his first play in Oregon territory. Maas guided Oregon beyond midfield, but two runs forced a third down, and a potential long touchdown pass to Tony Hartley was just missed to set up a punting situation. However, Oregon would never fear when Josh Bidwell was here. Bidwell pinned Air
Force deep in their own territory to set up another unforgettable moment in the memorable matchup. Backed up by a penalty, Air Force found themselves in an even deeper hole than they began. On third and 14, the handoff was beautifully read by the Oregon defense, as Fletcher, Jason Nikaloa, and Desmond Byrd were there to immediately greet the recipient of the handoff and stuff for loss of three. Air Force would have to punt from their own end zone.
Ten Oregon men were on the line, all ready to rush. Immediately upon the snap, true freshman linebacker Garrett Sabol broke through the line and into the end zone. Sabol came right down the middle and towards the punter untouched, easily getting right in his way and blocking the kick. The ball was loose in the end zone, and bounced right in the hands of Tailback/Special Teams Corner Kevin Parker for the score. 19-0, Oregon.
Parker recalls the special memory of the punt recovery for the touchdown. “The easiest touchdown I ever scored in my life, and it came from a team mate. That’s what I always believe in, being part of the team. I wanted him to get the touchdown, he earned it having made the great block, but it came to the right where I was at.” Oregon had scored its three touchdowns in unique fashion: the first two via long yardage on one play drives of (one pass, one run) and a blocked kick return for touchdown for zero yards.”
Air Force got the ball on the kickoff, but could not dent the high flying Oregon Defense. Fletcher was there again for Oregon on second and third down with great coverage to prevent a first down. Only a penalty on third down gave Air Force the first down and ball just beyond midfield. However, senior veteran Jaiya Figueras came up big again for Oregon in his final game as a Duck, beautifully reading the pass and making the interception as if he was the intended receiver. Oregon took over again around its own 30.
The first half would wind down. As time expired, Maas and company gradually moved the ball into scoring territory. Maas hit Spence for a huge gain into Falcon territory, followed by an individual run where Maas got Oregon into the red zone. With 28 seconds remaining, Maas rolled back to throw and calmly hit Tony Hartley for a seven yard strike and Oregon’s fourth touchdown of the game. With that, the first half would end with total domination by Oregon. 26-0, Oregon; halftime.
At halftime, renowned ESPN announcer Lee Corso commented on the surprise of Oregon. Corso acknowledged that Oregon was ranked dead last in the Pac-10 in total defense, but he would never have known it given the dominance of the game; even saying they played like the Pac-10’s top defense all game.
As the second half went underway, Oregon continued to control. A third quarter turnover gave Air Force the ball and led to their first score of the game to make the score 26-7, but the momentum remained in Oregon’s favor. A three-and-out is what Air Force needed to get back in the game, but two words prevented that: 1. Saladin. 2. McCullough. McCullough weaved his way through defenders for two consecutive first downs, and to midfield for Oregon to gain 120 yards on 10 carries. Oregon was marching right downfield and things were looking good, when they again turned the ball over in Falcon territory.
As any college football fan knows, no lead is safe. Oregon fans were concerned as their Ducks turned the ball over for the second consecutive drive. Concern soon subsided when Garth White came through big for the Ducks. Deep in Falcon territory, a reverse was mishandled and the ball was on the turf. White scooped up the ball and ran into the end zone. The senior playing his final game at Oregon was well deserving of a touchdown, but the muffed ball was ruled down where White recovered. However, two plays later, Hartley was wide open at the 2, and ran caught a strike from Maas to run it in untouched. Touchdown Oregon. Bellotti opted to go for the two-point conversion due to the previously missed PATs. Maas confidently went back to throw and calmly hit Blake Spence for the successful conversion. 34-7, Oregon.
Suddenly the game became all about back and forth turnovers. For the fourth time in five drives by either team, Oregon fumbled the ball away. Driving around midfield late in the third quarter, a QB draw failed and Air Force’s Bryce Fisher returned the fumble 45 yards for the score. On the upside, Jaiya Figueras had his second interception of the day on the two point conversion. 34-13, Oregon; as the third quarter would end.
Oregon immediately answered the call to put the game away. Senior Pat Johnson, having a career day, had another career defining moment to go out in style. Johnson, who had the game’s first touchdown on a long catch, had an even longer play. Just as the first quarter began with a long Johnson touchdown catch, so would the final quarter. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Jason Maas went back to throw. Johnson was open with a defender right on him; yet reeled in the ball, shook over the defender at the 30, and used his speed to go the distance for his second touchdown of the ball-game. 41-13, Oregon.
With the touchdown, Oregon capped its fifth offensive scoring drive of the day, scoring each touchdown in under a minute. Air Force had no answer from there. Peter Sirmon and company continued its dominance of shutting down the high powered Falcon running game. Sirmon, Figueras, and Patu pushed Air Force backwards on the ensuing drive. Oregon took over with less than ten minutes to play to milk the clock and work towards putting the game in the books. The seniors would all be pulled at once to honor their job well done and give the underclassmen a chance to prepare for outstanding careers to come.
AJ Feeley took over at QB and led Oregon to several first downs. Down into the Air Force red zone with under a minute to play, Feeley and tailback Jason Cooper led Oregon within the five yard line. The reserves could easily have marched it in with a minute to play, but Coach Bellotti was sportsmanlike enough to run the clock and be proud of what his team had already earned.
With that, the celebration was on. Oregon had pulled off the upset, and earned Coach Bellotti his first postseason victory. A hard earned triumph over the high-flying Falcons of Air Force showed the true reflection of this team’s determination and will to win; overcoming a mid-season slump and getting things done when no one else thought it was possible. Final Score: Oregon 41, Air Force 13.
– Major upset for Oregon: heavily favored #25 Air Force was soundly defeated.
– Oregon’s first two plays from scrimmage were for touchdowns
– Oregon’s first two drives were one-play drives resulting in scores/high yard averages
– Oregon’s first two drives averaged 72 yards/play
– Oregon’s defense surprisingly held Air Force in their own territory all first quarter, and never beyond Oregon’s 45 in the second quarter.
– All five of Oregon’s offensive touchdowns were scored in under one minute, and five plays or less
– Oregon shutout its opponent in the first half for the first time since first game Vs Arizona
– Saladin McCullough ended his career with 150 yards rushing, and the first Oregon player to average 100 yards/game rushing.
– Saladin McCullough’s first touch of the game broke Ahmad Rashad’s career mark with a 75 yard run.
– Pat Johnson’s ended his career in style, receiving 169 yards on only five catches for an average of nearly 34 yards/catch.
– Pat Johnson had two long touchdown catches of 69 and 78 yards; his second consecutive 50+ yard game.
– Pat Johnson made a long touchdown catch on the opening scrimmage play of the first quarter, and the fourth quarter
– The previously struggling Oregon Defense
– Garrett Sabol’s punt block marked the first blocked punt in two years
– Sabol was the first true freshman to block a punt in modern history
– Kevin Parker’s punt recovery for touchdown marked Oregon’s first punt block for touchdown in six years
– The victory marked the first bowl win for Coach Mike Bellotti
– The victory marked 7 wins, which improved upon 6 the previous year, and kept improving one by one for the next four seasons
– Oregon completed its fourth consecutive winning season; third under Mike Bellotti
– The 28 point margin was the largest margin of victory in Oregon postseason history
– 15 stalwart seniors ended their career with a win, including 12 who were true-redshirt freshmen the on the 1994 Rose Bowl squad.