Before the first game of 1993, Rich Brooks was touting his team as a Rose Bowl contender. Which it probably could have been, considering the talent returning from the ‘92 team that finished 8-4. And, there was turmoil in Seattle, as Don James decided during fall practice that he’d had enough with being expected to follow rules, which meant the Huskies’ three-year hold on the Rose Bowl would end. USC was breaking in a new coach, or rather, a new old coach (John Robinson). Only Arizona appeared formidable on defense. The window of opportunity seemed open.
There was talent on the Oregon football team, for sure. There was also plenty of experience. The Ducks started 19 upperclassmen on offense and defense — 11 of the 22 first-game starters were seniors, along with both kickers.
The perception of success wasn’t universal. Sports Illustrated pegged Oregon to go 6-5, saying “Not quite a poll team but, thanks to free-spending fans, a bowl team.” (Thus demonstrating a lack of attention not uncommon in the national media; unless one of those five losses was to division 1-AA Montana, a 6-5 record would not make the Ducks bowl-eligible under 1993 rules.) As usual, Oregon merely bubbled under the Top 25 in the preseason polls, among those “others receiving votes.”
But, looking back, 1993 may have been doomed before the first kickoff.
Cas crumples; Ducks go 3-0 OOC
Legendary Oregon HC Len Casanova, for whom the Cas Center is named, and the closest thing Oregon had to a godlike presence until the arrival of Chip Kelly, suffered a heart attack the night before Oregon opened the season at Colorado State. Cas pulled through, and the Ducks knocked off CSU 23-9, overcoming three fumbles, but suffered two significant injuries; starting TE Willy Tate was knocked out with a shoulder separation, and CB Herman O’Berry broke his ankle. A team that had felt pretty good about its two-deep started to look shallow.
But, a win is a win. And the Ducks were looking forward to getting healthy, with an easy home win in a paycheck game with Division 1-AA Montana.
The game with the Griz was particularly sentimental, as it marked the return to Autzen of one Don Read, architect of so many unartistic efforts in that stadium as Oregon’s coach from 1974 to 1976. Still, it was one of those “paycheck games” that Oregon was happy to schedule as the host, instead of the doomed visitor.
Trouble was, someone forgot to fill Read and Montana in on their end of the deal. A backup QB named Dave Dickenson came off the Grizzlies bench to torch Oregon’s defense for more than 400 yards of total offense — in three quarters of action — and nearly pulled off a heroic upset.
The win for Oregon, 35-30, didn’t feel like one. Oregon had led 28-3 in the second quarter. The Ducks’ captain, senior MLB Ernest Jones, said “If you walked into that locker room right now, you’d think we lost by 30 points.”
When your team is playing a divison 1-AA school, at home, and has to rely on recovering an onside kick inside of two minutes to seal a five-point win.. the optimism fades quickly. For first-year DC Nick Allioti, allowing 530 yards to a “lesser” program wasn’t a good sign. Montana only punted twice. As for the offense — of the eleven penalties the Ducks drew, six were on false starts. And there were four fumbles — at least the Ducks recovered three of those — on a dry Saturday.
It was obvious the Ducks had a very weak secondary; freshman LaMont Woods was forced to burn his redshirt when future all-conference CB Herman O’Berry broke his ankle against Colorado State. And Alex Molden had not yet developed the skills that would put him in the NFL.. and was coming off knee surgery the previous winter.
Still, it was a win. And junior QB Danny ONeil was playing well, hitting 67% in the two games without a pick. A road win at Illinois the next weekend, 13-7, put the Ducks at 3-0 going into conference play. It was only the third time an Oregon team had ever won on the road against a Big 10 team.
The Collapse at Cal
After the Illinois game, O’Neil lamented, “We probably still won’t get an AP vote” in the top 25. “We just don’t get much respect in Oregon. It’s like we’re in prison and no word gets out of the prison walls about us.” He was wrong — Oregon would receive 4 votes, making them an unofficial 38th in the top 25. But this would prove to be an unintentionally prophetic simile, considering what happened the next week, and how the Pac-10 race played out.
Oregon rode into Berkeley as 10.5 point underdogs, but hadn’t won there since 1986. Against the Bears, they looked for all the world like a top 25 team .. in the first quarter, storming out to a 24-0 lead. There was a six minute, 94 yard, 12 play drive; then a fumble recovery on the next kickoff, cashed in for a touchdown; then Chad Cota picked off a Dave Barr pass and raced 49 yards for a touchdown; a field goal was set up by another fumble. 6 minutes into the 2nd quarter, it was 30-0, and that missed extra point on that last TD didn’t really matter, did it? Or the way the offense blew a chance to score at the end of the first half? Duck fans were thinking Pasadena.
The euphoria didn’t last past halftime. Oregon went on to lose the game, 42-41, on a two-point conversion at the end. A Pac-10 record was set: Largest Lead Ever Squandered In Defeat. It was Rich Brooks’ 100th loss as Oregon coach. A monumental defeat, the ‘93 Cal game probably deserves its own feature story; there were so many story lines.. the new OC at Cal, Denny Schuler, had spent the previous four seasons as Oregon’s DC; Oregon rolled up 614 yards of offense, and lost.
The next week, Oregon was back home, and on TV. (There was, in fact, a time when not every college football game was televised) This was not necessarily a good thing, as the Ducks had lost their last 7 televised games, dating back to 1991. The streak continued. Oregon managed to hang with a beatable USC team at Autzen for three quarters, then fell apart. Danny O’Neil fumbled twice and threw two picks in the 4th quarter. USC won, 24-13, as Rob Johnson lit up the beleaguered Oregon secondary for 307 yards and three TDs.
Oregon rebounded with a 45-36 win, over a bad Arizona State team in Tempe, in a game the Ducks led 31-7 in the first half.
The offense was doing its job, between turnovers at least. Through six games, they were outscoring their opponents 61-7 in the first quarter.. but Nick Aliotti’s leaky defense wouldn’t allow any opponent to be put away.
Injuries and self-inflicted wounds pile up
Against the Huskies, in Seattle, the offense finally came unglued, with O’Neil throwing six interceptions in a 21-6 loss to the newly-criminalized UW squad, still smarting from the Pac-10 smackdown and the resignation in a huff of Don James earlier in the year. It was Oregon’s fifth consecutive loss to Washington, who shredded the Ducks on the ground for 290 yards, mostly from the TB combination of Beno Bryant and Napoleon Kaufman.
And the injuries were piling up. The defensive line was decimated, with three of the four linemen out with injuries and DE Romeo Bandison hobbled, and LB Jeremy Asher knocked out for weeks. Molden was sidelined again with a hip pointer. Oregon’s safeties were having to make most of the tackles; Chad Cota had 12 by himself against UW, never a good sign.
Oregon picked up its fifth, and last, victory of 1993 against a decent Wazzu team at Autzen. This game gave no appearances of being the last winning effort, as the Ducks poured it on at the end, breaking open a 32-23 game with two TDs in the last six minutes. In this game, the injury gods finally gave Oregon a break, as inspirational FB Juan Shedrick, thought lost for the season against Cal with a broken elbow, unexpectedly returned to action. And, when senior RB Sean Burwell went out for the season with an ankle, backup Ricky Whittle and reserve Dino Philyaw picked up the slack. (Philyaw also saw time at corner in this game.) O’Neil looked great, with 327 yards and three TDs, and no turnovers for a change.
Still in the bowl picture, Oregon headed for Tucson .. and was literally run over, 31-10, by a very good Arizona team that would finish the season 10-2, beating Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. Arizona led 21-0 at the half, and only attempted one pass the entire game; they would finish with nearly 400 yards rushing.
Easy route to a bowl game..
At 5-4, the Ducks still had a shot at a bowl game, with two home games left — against conference cellar-dwellers Stanford and OSU, winners of one conference game each.
Only problem: Oregon had played best to this point on defense against balanced teams. One-dimensional offenses tended to have their way with the Ducks. And Stanford, as bad as it was, still had Bill Walsh as coach, and could throw the ball a little.
The Tree did throw the ball, a lot, all over Autzen. Stanford QB Steve Stenstrom went 28-37-0 for 407 yards and three TDs, breaking John Elway’s Pac-10 record for passing yardage in a season.
With a 38-34 win, Stanford knocked Oregon out of bowl eligibility. In the understatement of the season, DC Nick Aliotti said, “We just didn’t play very good pass defense.”
Ominously, for a very important home game in November, playing for bowl eligibility, favored by a touchdown, the Ducks only drew 31,214 paying fans. It was the lowest attendance for a conference game in over seven years. The natives were getting restless, a fact echoed in the media.
In a column dripping with resignation to what many believed was Oregon’s fate for eternity, Ron Bellamy wrote in the R-G: (emphasis added)
If Oregon fans have grown weary of so-called minor bowls — if 7-4 isn’t good enough and the football program is only going to generate big gates and intense interest during more-special seasons — then Oregon has created a monster it can’t hope to feed. If Oregon fans have simply grown weary of seeing the same face on the sidelines for 17 seasons — and there’s some of that in the talk-show phone calls from disgruntled rooters — then they must also realise that considering its size, resources and recruiting base, Oregon never should finish higher than eighth in the Pac-10, period…
If Oregon fans set their hearts on the Rose Bowl every year, they are going to find them broken, again and again and again.
— Ron Bellamy, The Register-Guard, 11-14-1993
Boned by the Beavers
Thus, at 5-5, with nowhere to go, favored by 10 points, Oregon came out for the Civil War, against another one-dimensional team. This time, it was Jerry Pettibone’s spread option, which bore more resemblence to the old wishbone-T than today’s spread option. The Beavers came in at 3-7, with the #2 rushing attack in the country, and tasting blood in the Autzen waters.
Not known as a defensive powerhouse, OSU this time looked more like Ohio State, holding the Ducks under 200 yards for the game. Ultimately, in a defensive struggle, it’s the team with the healthiest defense that wins. OSU scored on a pick-6; then, trailing late in the 4th quarter 12-7, the Beavers capitalized on a high snap on a punt that sailed over Tommy Thompson’s head. Recovering at the Oregon 24, OSU punched in the winning touchdown, cashed the 2-pt conversion, and won 15-12.
Season over. Oregon was firmly ensconced in a tie for last place with Stanford and OSU; following the standard tiebreaker rules, the Ducks could claim the cellar all to themselves.
Meanwhile, up highway 99W, the Beavers were brimming with optimism; Pettibone, in three CWs, had won twice, and only lost the other game 7-0. He’d won twice in Autzen Stadium. The feeling was that the corner had been turned, at last, in Corvallis.
* * *
Pettibone’s corner turned out to be a cul-de-sac. He won only seven more games in the next three years, and was sacked in 1996.
As it turned out, it was Oregon that had turned the corner.. because The Last Lost Season of 1993 led to the first season of a new era in Oregon football. This, of course, wasn’t obvious at the time. In Eugene, after three bowls in four years, Oregon football seemed to have reached, and receded from, its high point. Mediocrity was once again the expectation. There were, as usual, boosters who wanted the Oregon athletic director to fire himself from at least one of his jobs.
Still, the sense was that Brooks wasn’t the type to commit employment suicide. Willy Tate said “personally, I don’t think he’d want to end his career with a loss to the Beavers.”
There was also a thought that being both AD and HC was too much responsibility for Brooks.. that he needed to commit to either being one, or the other. Brooks said, essentially, “bullshit”, and continued to work both jobs.
In a post-mortem on the season, the R-G’s Bellamy demonstrated a certain skill for prophecy. In outlining what he perceived to be important goals for 1994, he included this gem:
”.. O’Neil must bring the ducks back from a second-half deficit. He must lead the Ducks to victory against a ranked team, a traditional power like Washington or Southern Cal.”
— Ron Bellamy, The Register-Guard, 11-28-1993