Before we get to plays #5-1, here are some plays that just missed the list:
- Kenjon Barner’s punt return fumble against LSU (2011): The play had a heavy impact on the game (as well as Tyrann Mathieu’s career), but had Oregon won that game and still lost the USC contest, both Oregon and LSU would’ve been 11-1 at season’s end. Despite the victory over LSU, it’s likely the BCS would have treated Oregon’s win with less consideration than the recency of its loss, and likely would have sent LSU to the title game. (After all, they’ve done it before.)
- Mariota’s 77-yard run against Stanford (2012): Many of the people who forget that a field goal at the end of that drive would’ve won the game, are likely the same ones who were doing the Big Balls Chip gesture on the very same fourth down.
- Ed Dickson’s catch against Arizona (2009): Huge, huge play, but had it been incomplete, it still would have been third down with five seconds left. Another shot at the end zone would have been possible. Also, it was not the biggest play of the game (see below.)
5) Terrance Mitchell Strip, Michael Clay Recovery vs. Wisconsin (2011)
Why it was influential: Winning a game for the first time in 95 years is a big deal. In the highest scoring Rose Bowl ever, it wasn’t about who put up points, but who could stop the other team first. Making one of the most celebrated plays in school history, with a little help from the football gods (seriously, how does the ball just stop?), in the biggest victory in our lifetime is enough to do it.
Also, without it, we never would have known Chip Kelly wears ankle socks.
Why it isn’t higher: Oregon was up by a touchdown at the time, and had Wisconsin scored a touchdown to tie the game Oregon still would have had the final possession to answer. The kicking game – a concern going into the game – had already been successful with Alejandro Maldonado’s kick earlier in the fourth quarter. Oregon would have been far from sunk in that game if they had everything riding on the final possession.
4) Cliff Harris Interception vs. Auburn (2010)
Why it was influential: A lot of hand-wringing was devoted to the Michael Dyer call on the game’s final drive, but this call had far more impact. Harris got his arm down on this dynamic interception, but the officials ruled he was juggling the ball. One play later, Auburn scored its first touchdown of the game.
Why it isn’t higher: The interception would have been a huge momentum swing, and obviously the difference in points would have resulted in different outcomes. Still, that play happened early in the second quarter, and there were many plays between that moment and the game’s conclusion that could have altered the game’s outcome.
3) Masoli Lowers the Shoulder vs. Oregon State (2009)
Why it was influential: Had Masoli been stopped, Oregon State would have taken over at their own 31-yard line with 3:20 remaining, which was more time than the Beavers had needed on two of their three touchdowns that night. Oregon would only need one more first down to secure its first Rose Bowl in 15 years, and the first of four consecutive BCS bowl games.
Why it isn’t higher: Oregon was leading at the time of the play, and though that first down was significant (especially given that Masoli was dead-to-rights), to say the Ducks still couldn’t have held on to win following a turnover-on-downs does a disservice to that defense. Additionally, Oregon still needed another first down four plays later (Kenjon Barner’s run) before it could run out the clock.
2) Dennis Dixon Knee Injury vs. Arizona (2007)
Why it was influential: The second-ranked Ducks lost their Heisman frontrunner with three games remaining in a season with a wide-open national title picture.
Why it isn’t higher: It’s universally assumed that had Dixon stayed healthy, Oregon wins the National Championship. While Oregon was visibly the best team in the country that season, it’s also incredibly assumptive to just hand the Ducks the title based solely on a healthy Dixon. Oregon was rife with injuries that season, having already lost several starters for the entire season. While beating Arizona, UCLA, and Oregon State isn’t a far-fetched assumption, to assume they would convincingly roll an Ohio State team (LSU, the eventual national champion, was ranked #2 at season’s end) that had played in that very game the year prior is far from certain. Luck plays more of a part in determining champions that it is given credit for, even in a sport with as selective a postseason as college football. Fans romanticize the notion of the injury robbing the Ducks of a title, but the fact that we will never experience the alternate scenario makes it easy to do so.
1) Nate Costa Gets The Hold Down vs. Arizona (2009)
Why it was influential: Unlike the other plays listed above, there would have been no opportunity for redemption in that game had the play gone any other way. If the kick been blocked, Oregon would have had to onside kick with six seconds remaining, hope they recovered it, and then tried a Hail Mary at game’s end. They wouldn’t have been close enough for a field goal, nor had enough time to get into field goal position. They would have been dead in the water, and the miraculous rally up to that point would have been for naught, relegated to the list of most tragic endings to a football game.
Why it’s #1: Every play above has some wiggle room about what potentially could have happened had an alternate scenario occurred. The result of this play made the game’s outcome binary; either Oregon wins or loses on that play. Here’s what I wrote last year about what would have happened had Costa not gotten the extra point down:
Whether the snap was bobbled or the kick blocked (when watching the replay it is stunning that it wasn’t blocked with two Arizona defenders seemingly on top of the kick), Oregon fails to get the tying point, losing 31-30. The first “for the Rose Bowl” Civil War game doesn’t happen (and the only Civil War of its kind, since the divisional structure prevents the game from having those stakes again), while 9-3 Arizona, who would prevail in the following weeks against Arizona State and USC, would go to the Rose Bowl.
Oregon would likely have played in its second straight Holiday Bowl, and maybe doesn’t find the motivation necessary to get to the National Championship in 2010, making the Rose Bowl the focus instead. While the Ducks surprise early on by starting 10-0, a team whose preseason preparation was on the Rose Bowl and not the National Championship gets surprised at Cal in week 12, but having the tiebreaker with Stanford allows Oregon to still play in the Rose Bowl, their preseason goal.
Don’t think it can happen? That’s exactly what happened this season  against USC. With the Pac-12 title all but secured the week before against Stanford, Oregon came out flat and USC found just enough to beat them.
Unprepared for the big stage after playing in its first BCS game in nine years, (remember in this scenario the Ducks missed the Rose Bowl the previous year), Wisconsin finds a way to beat Oregon in similar fashion to how Ohio State did 2010. Now let’s say 2011 plays out the same way, Wisconsin meets Oregon in the Rose Bowl, only now Wisconsin has the upper hand of knowing how to beat the Ducks and uses that advantage to pull off another victory in Pasadena.
Instead of two Rose Bowls (including a win) and a National Championship appearance, the situation instead is two Rose Bowl losses and Oregon is now waiting 96 years for its first Rose Bowl victory, all because of an extra point.
With that extraordinary salvage of a routine play, the historical arc of a program was forever altered. Oregon became one of only four schools in the BCS era to play in four straight BCS bowl games, an accomplishment that required a basic extra point against Arizona to achieve. They say no single play determines whether a team wins or loses, but some plays are influential enough to change the direction of a program forever.
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