Three Reasons Oregon-ASU Never Became a Rivalry

Amid the chaos following their game, the two coaches ran toward each other for a common ritual of their profession: the post-game handshake.

While this interaction is normally brief and emotionally distant, after this particular game one coach, Arizona State’s Todd Graham, chose this moment to voice his contempt for the coach he was facing, Washington State’s Mike Leach. Broadcast microphones strained to pick up the exchange between the two, with the only two intelligible words being the names of animals adjacent to descriptions of bodily waste.

The exchange was the product of Leach’s accusation of Graham and ASU of stealing signs, with Graham clearly taking exception to the accusation. While the exchange likely will be forgotten in the weeks that follow, historical rivalries have been built on less. Which raises the question, “Beyond the obvious framework like geography, how does a rivalry form?” It is purely hate? It is legendary games? If it were by great games alone, Arizona State and Oregon would be rivals by now.

One would be hard pressed to find a matchup between two Pac-12 opponents that has produced more great matchups in recent memory than Oregon and Arizona State. Just look at what has happened when these two teams have played over the past two decades:

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David Pyles

Vernon Adams celebrates a win over ASU in 2015.

2015: In a game where Oregon used white sheets on its sidelines to protect its play calls (sound familiar?), the Ducks needed three overtimes and a game-ending interception by Arrion Springs to survive Arizona State’s 742 yards of total offense. Dwayne Stanford and Bralon Addison’s late touchdowns contributed to a win largely credited with saving Oregon’s season.

2011: With ESPN’s ”College GameDay” on-site in the morning and the largest crowd ever to watch a football game in the state of Oregon at night (60,055, a record that still stands), No. 9 Oregon withstood injuries to both Darron Thomas and LaMichael James to beat No. 18 Arizona State, 41-27, for its 15th-straight conference win and 20th-straight at Autzen Stadium.

2007: Quick, what is the only matchup of Top-5 teams ever played at Autzen Stadium? That would be No. 4 Arizona State playing No. 5 Oregon. The marquee matchup produced the then-largest crowd ever to attend a football game in the state of Oregon at the time, 59,379 (notice a trend?), as well as a second appearance of ESPN’s ”College GameDay” that year — the first time “GameDay” ever came to Eugene twice in one season. Oregon won, 35-23, though a fourth-quarter injury to Dennis Dixon has largely wiped out any positive memory of this game.

2002: Trailing 35-17 late in the third quarter, Arizona State quarterback Andrew Walter (under the tutelage of QB coach Mark Helfrich) rallied the Sun Devils with a torrent of deep passes, resulting in three touchdowns in less than five minutes. Walter finished the day with a then-Pac-12 record 536 passing yards while ending No. 6 Oregon’s 11-game winning streak.

2000: Arguably the best game in the series, No. 10 Oregon trailed, 49-35, but a late Arizona State fumble and two touchdowns in the final four minutes allowed Oregon to tie the game with 27 seconds left. After a scoreless first overtime, both teams scored a touchdown in the second overtime, but Arizona State went for two and failed, resulting in a 56-55 Oregon win.

1999: In the debut of “Captain Comeback,” Joey Harrington started the second half by replacing starter A.J. Feeley, and ended it by throw a game-winning 29-yard touchdown to Marshaun Tucker with nine seconds remaining. It was the first of Harrington’s 10 fourth-quarter comebacks, leading the Ducks to a 20-17 win at Autzen Stadium.

With a deep history of classic games, why haven’t Oregon and Arizona State developed a rivalry over that time? Three reasons emerge:

1) Neither Team Has Ruined the Other Team’s Season

Marcus Mariota's run against ASU in 2012 was an all-time highlight.

Stephanie Baldwin

Marcus Mariota’s run against ASU in 2012 was an all-time highlight.

As opposed to, say, Oregon-Stanford in 2012, no game in the series history with Arizona State stands out as a matchup where “this game and this game alone” ruined either team’s season. The closest example might be Oregon’s win in 2007, but Arizona State still could have won the conference that season in a winner-take-all season finale against USC. Wins by Arizona State in 2002 and Oregon in 2011, which seemed significant at the time, instead kickstarted a downward spiral for the losing team following that game.

No loss to the other team ever served as the only conference for a particular team in a given season. In 2013 and 2014, when Arizona State won 10 games in consecutive seasons for the first time since joining the conference, it was also the first time the two teams had not met since 1985.

2) Alternating Periods of Success

Kenjon Barner carries against Arizona State in 2012.

Stephanie Baldwin

Kenjon Barner carries against Arizona State in 2012.

The most successful period in Arizona State’s history came under head coach Frank Kush, but the Kush was fired less than two years after the Sun Devils joined the conference and the Ducks never played a conference game against him. Meanwhile, Oregon’s period of success has largely been the two decades since, while Arizona State’s last Rose Bowl was in 1996, and the Ducks have won 13 of the last 16 in the series.

Oregon’s record during the seasons with those three losses? A combined 20-17. Oregon’s never finished higher than fourth in the conference the years Arizona State has won a conference title, the Sun Devils no higher than second in their division the years Oregon has won its division.

It has also been an incredibly streaky series: Arizona State’s 24-21 win in 1991 remains the only win in the 34 games that was not part of a multi-game win streak for one team in the series.

3) Nothing Extra to Incentivize the Rivalry

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David Pyles

Darren Carrington Jr. against ASU in 2015.

Great games may make a matchup intriguing, but a rivalry requires something deeper – something personal. The schools are neither similar nor dissimilar enough to fuel true animosity, and the campuses are 1,200 miles apart. Each already has existing rivalries, and Ryan Kelley notwithstanding, rarely battle over the same kids in recruiting. With conference expansion reducing the frequency of the matchup, if a budding rivalry hasn’t begun by now, barring unforeseen circumstances, it is never going to happen.

While it may not be a rivalry, it is still a series known for its classic matchups. Will this year’s game keep up the tradition? We will find out Saturday.

Nathan Roholt
Eugene, Oregon

Top Photo by David Pyles

Disclaimer: Readers: Every writer on FishDuck.com is allowed to express their opinion in their articles. However, articles do not represent the views of the other writers, editors, coaching consultants, management, or the principals of FishDuck.com. Charles Fischer

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