For the last several days I’ve had a cheesy classic rock song stuck in my head, the kind that I used to listen to on KGON radio back in high school before I’d discovered indie or punk: “More Than A Feeling” by Boston. It’s because I have been compulsively watching and re-watching a highlight montage on YouTube of the annual Civil War football game.
Over the course of four minutes and forty seconds, this ordinarily cringe-inducing cliché of a song now suddenly sounds like Mozart to my years because of the footage it’s paired with: a 65-38 Ducks win against Oregon State.
As this highlight reel shows, it’s astonishing just how many big plays there are for the Ducks. And all against a Beaver team that was playing for their first trip to the Rose Bowl since 1965.
There is Jeremiah Johnson’s 83-yard touchdown, featuring one last flawless rendition of his signature move over the last four years: a wicked stiff-arm to fend off the Beaver defense on the way to the end zone. It brought back memories of his textbook stiff-arm against Michigan last year in Ann Arbor. Johnson has been a superb back for Oregon but largely overshadowed in past years by Jonathan Stewart. I think he'll play on Sunday for years.
Following Johnson’s long touchdown a few plays later, as the Beavers try to come back from a 30-10 second quarter deficit, there is Walter Thurmond’s 40 yard interception return for another touchdown. I mean, it was 37-17 at halftime! Who scores 37 in a half, let alone in your rivalry game?
But it just goes on and on. There is Jeremiah Masoli’s 14-yard touchdown, Ed Dickson’s 45-yard TD reception after miraculously squeezing all but untouched between two OSU defenders, and then Spencer Paysinger’s interception return for a score to seal the game once and for all. There is even a flea-flicker where quarterback Jeremiah Masoli tosses the ball to backup quarterback Darron Thomas on a reverse play, and Thomas then stops to throw a successful 35-yard pass to Jeff Maehl.
In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined the Ducks erupting for 65 points in the Civil War against a Beaver defense ranked 2nd in the conference, all when Oregon State has the Rose Bowl on the line. And naturally, besides all the big plays that delivered Oregon’s domination, stitched into the experience is the shock and dejection of the Beaver fans seeing their conference championship slip away.
I’m not quite as much of a Beaver hater as I used to be. This game was for me much more about simply winning the Civil War, and reversing the tide of a two-game losing streak to the Beavers. But considering how media outlets were already projecting OSU for the Rose Bowl, and fans were already making plane reservations for Los Angeles, I had to laugh thinking of Oregon’s bruising running back LaGarrette Blount on the sideline at game’s end, yelling to the crowd in his southern accent, “Ain’t no Rose Bowl ta-day!”
Although “More Than a Feeling” plays on the YouTube highlight package, my mind has also returned often to the tune of the University of Georgia fight song playing on TV during their game with Georgia Tech earlier that same day. I don’t know what the actual fight song lyrics are, but they were to the tune of the old religious song "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" with its refrain, “Glory, Glory Hallelujah!” That seemed a more fitting expression as the final seconds ticked away in Corvallis.
For many seasons in Mike Bellotti’s tenure, Oregon has started strong only to finish with mounting losses, usually due to injury. Last year we were ranked #2 in both major polls before Dennis Dixon’s season-ending knee injury and ensuing three-game losing streak to end the regular season. In 2006 a #11 national ranking (again in both the AP and USA Today coaches’ polls) on October 2 gave way to being far outside of the top 25 after a string of losses culminating in an embarrassing Las Vegas bowl drubbing from BYU. In 2002 we started 6-0 and earned a #6 AP ranking, but wound up 7-6 and losing the lowly Seattle Bowl to lowly Wake Forest in pouring rain. Back in 1998 undefeated Oregon took a #11 Associated Press ranking to UCLA against the #5 Bruins but lost both the game and star running back Ruben Droughns; a Las Vegas Bowl thrashing of Air Force was the consolation prize.
So obviously when the Ducks go undefeated after November 1 in the home stretch like this year’s team, culminating with a Civil War win, it’s something to savor. The Ducks also hadn’t won in Corvallis since 1996, Bellotti’s second season as head coach. I remember listening to that game in my Jersey City, New Jersey apartment using my roommate’s newfangled “Internet” connection. (It was a real eye-opener at the time to what the Web could become.)
And Oregon didn’t just win the Civil War. They won big. They destroyed the Beavers. They broke their hearts. They toyed with them. They caused Beaver fans en masse to discard and trample the roses they’d brought to the game.
Maybe Oregon State does deserve to make it to the Rose Bowl some day. But I said it all along after they beat USC earlier in the year and began their much-hyped march toward a possible conference crown: the Beavers were a good team, but definitely not that good. They played one truly superb half against USC, thanks to the virtuoso talents of freshman running back Jaquizz Rogers. But otherwise, USC was clearly and easily the best team in the Pac-10, as evidenced by their ultimate 11-1 record compared to Oregon State going 8-4. The team OSU would have faced in the Rose Bowl, Penn State, already demolished the Beavers by several touchdowns earlier this year. If the Beavers should go to the Rose Bowl, it should be when they’re the best team in the conference. The 2000 OSU team that beat Joey Harrington’s Ducks en route to a Fiesta Bowl blowout of Notre Dame and #4 final national ranking, for example, was (Rogers notwithstanding) vastly better than this year’s Beaver team.
Meanwhile, thankful and elated as I am over the Civil War win, I can’t help but think what might have been for the Ducks had they not taken several games to get an experienced quarterback going. The year started in training camp with Nate Costa as the starter, then after his season-ending injury it became Justin Roper’s team, only to give way to junior-college-transfer sophomore Jeremiah Masoli for most of the campaign. After starting 4-0, Oregon lost 37-32 to Boise State (which finished undefeated this year) after being down to their fourth quarterback, freshman Darron Thomas—a guy who had never played college football before. The Ducks got pummeled by USC, and there’s no “what if” associated with that game. But soon after that game, with Masoli still struggling to learn the passing game, they lost by 10 against Cal. If you put an experienced, healthy Masoli or even Roper in for the duration of those Boise State and Cal games, it’s very possible Oregon would have won both—certainly against Boise State. Suddenly, that would have made the Ducks 11-1. They still wouldn’t have gone to the Rose Bowl, but might a BCS invitation have come? Or if USC had completed their comeback attempt against OSU and the Ducks had one loss, the Trojans would have gone to the national championship and the Ducks would have been back in Pasadena for the first time in 14 years (and only the second time in 41 years).
Even so, the way this season turned out isn’t about what might have been. It’s about some very impressive, cathartic wins culminating in the best of them all: a 65-point eruption to beat the Beavers in Corvallis.
I also can’t view this season without thinking about last season, which was both the most thrilling and the most tragic in Oregon’s entire 115 years of play. I’ll never forget coming home from Beijing, wowed and exhausted by the trip, and hearing Kirk Herbsteit say on ESPN, “Dennis Dixon is in the driver’s seat for the Heisman Trophy. It’s his to lose.” The team I’d followed my whole life with the passion of Patton and Travis Bickel was in line to achieve the impossible dream: not only a Heisman, but a shot at the national championship. The national fucking championship! For the Oregon Ducks. For the team that once opened the 1974 and 1975 seasons by losing 61-7 to Nebraska and 62-7 to Oklahoma. For a team that Sports Illustrated described in the 1980s, when the team experienced a brief flash of success, as saying, “Even the lowly Oregon Ducks briefly waddled into the Rose Bowl race.”
Last year’s season is also tied in my emotions to my cousin Steve’s untimely death from cancer at age 39, within days of Dennis Dixon’s injury. When I shed tears that night as he was carried off the turf, they gave me an outlet to mourn for Steve, who I not only missed but who was leaving behind three young children, not to mention the countless people he’d touched as a pastor and police chaplain. It goes without saying that Steve was and still is infinitely and incomparably more important than anything that ever happens to the Oregon Ducks. But we graft emotions about the important stuff in life, stuff we couldn’t ordinarily find voice to express, into the rise and fall of the sports teams we support.
So when I maniacally jumped up and down screaming in the living room in front of the TV as the 2008 Civil War hit zero, or when I rushed soon afterward downstairs to the basement to play Kool & The Gang’s hopelessly corny classic “Celebration” on my parents’ old record player, and certainly as I watch and rewatch this grainy little YouTube montage of the game with Boston playing in the background, it’s nothing short of rapturous.