The Heisman That Almost Was

Henry Swift History

This past year we witnessed something special. For the first time in the history of Oregon football we had a Heisman trophy winner. Coming into the year, we had little doubt that Marcus Mariota would be taking home the hardware. However even as historic as this landmark was, Mariota should have been the second Heisman winner at Oregon. Way back in 2007, if it weren’t for the worst string of injuries in program history, Dennis Dixon would have been the first Heisman winner for Oregon.

Clemens before the injury

Clemens before his injury.

What made Dixon’s Heisman campaign so special was how unexpected it was. Going into his senior year, not only were we not expecting anything special from the team, we weren’t even sure if Dixon would be the starting QB.

Dixon started his career at Oregon after Kellen Clemons was injured against Arizona in the 2005 season. That season, Clemons was lighting up the Pac-10 — except for USC, who were unbeatable during the 2000’s. However, in what can be considered as Arizona‘s favorite hobby, they ruined our season by breaking the ankle of the starting quarterback.

While Oregon didn’t lose the game, we lost something much greater. We lost Clemens, our team leader and the season was cast into doubt. The sliver lining of this situation was that Dixon was able to get game experience. He was unlike any prospect we had up to that point and created buzz for the future. He was the first true dual-threat quarterback that we had in the new spread offense.

This pairing of Dixon, the spread offense, and co-starting quarterback Brady Leaf made Oregon an interesting team, but nothing that would merit elite status. Oregon would win out the rest of the regular season, but they were once again shafted by the BCS. Oregon went on to lose a close battle with Oklahoma, 17-14, in the Holiday Bowl.

Dixon Shredding Oklahoma

The next season began like many seasons at Oregon — with a QB battle, which Dixon eventually won. The season started off with so much promise. Oregon even beat an Adrian Peterson led Oklahoma – with some help from the replay officials.

But the season quickly spun out of control, following a thrashing by Cal. During the game, Dixon was  harassed by the Cal defense. This led to three interceptions. Dixon never really regained his confidence that season, as he became a liability under center. So, the team ended up playing Leaf more than Dixon, and what once seemed like a special season, finished as a mediocre one.

Barely making it into bowl season, Oregon faced a tough BYU team, who they were obviously not interested in playing against, and consequently gave a miserable performance. They were shut out in the first three quarters, and ended up being thoroughly handled —  38-8.

The following year, we didn’t know what to expect from the team. Would we get the team who could compete with anybody in the country, or would we get the team who could barely score on BYU? Also this season, the team added a new offensive coordinator by the name of Chip Kelly. With so many unknowns heading into the season, there was no way to predict how the season would turn out. At the top of the list of unknowns was who would be the starting QB. While there were some who thought that Leaf provided a more consistent solution at the position, it was Dixon who was awarded the job.

Dixon proved to be the perfect choice for Kelly’s offense. He transformed from being a turnover machine, into the Heisman candidate many of us remember. The first game didn’t provide any answers as to how good this team really was. The second game in the Big House against an angry Michigan team (after its upset by FCS opponent Appalachian State), showed the world just how good Dixon could be. Michigan was looking to get their season back on track. Instead Dixon and the Ducks put on a show. Dixon could not be stopped, as he announced his Heisman candidacy on the biggest of stages.

The season was setting up to be the greatest season in program history. For the first time in years, College Gameday had come to Eugene, and later made a return visit. Oregon did lose to Cal in the most heart-breaking of fashions. However, the team regrouped and won their next four games — including games against  #9 USC and #6 Arizona St.

Even with injuries mounting, Oregon was looking like they were on a crash course for the BCS national championship. Dixon was running away with the Heisman, as no one looked like they could stop the Oregon offense. Then right on schedule, Arizona came to ruin Oregon’s season. Going into the game, Dixon was nursing an injured left knee from the previous game, but after a 39-yard touchdown run, everything seemed to be fine.

Down goes Dixon

Dixon down after the cut.

The following possession changed everything. Running a standard read option — Dixon kept the ball, went to cut back and crumbled to the turf. In what can arguably be described as the saddest moment in Oregon football history, Dixon had torn his ACL.

With Dixon out of the game, Oregon struggled to move the ball and lost to Arizona, yet again. The rest of the season went on like a nightmare. Oregon was shut out by UCLA. Heading into the Civil War, Leaf was also lost for the season. With all major bowl aspirations dead — Oregon lost their second consecutive Civil War.

Even though this was the saddest point in program history — relive the success that follows. The Mighty Oregon DVD can mend the heartache that this tragedy caused. Relive the successes of Lamichael James and Darron Thomas, as Oregon thrived after Dixon.

Even though Oregon went on to win the Sun Bowl — that season will always be remembered for what could have been. What if Dixon hadn’t hurt his knee, what if Leaf started the Arizona game instead? There are too many what ifs attached to that season. However, while that season was once viewed as a once in a generation type season for Oregon, it was only a sign of what was in store for the future.

Featured Photo by Melissa Murray

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