On September 29, 2007, ESPN's traveling GameDay college football show descended upon Eugene, Oregon looking for a heavyweight tussle between two of the nation's Top 12 teams. Boy, did they get a doozy.
A head coach looking for his first win in the place where he spent years as an assistant; a road team looking for its first victory in Eugene in 30 years; a pair of undefeated teams looking to establish themselves as the #1 challenger to conference top dog USC; potential Heisman candidates on both sides; fourth quarter leads and late comebacks for each; and finally, a thrilling finish with a crazy final twist that seemingly took forever for the instant replay officials to sort out. This game had everything, and the fact that it's only #3 on our list underscores just how epic the top two games were.
Oregon's Autzen Stadium has long been a tough stadium to play in, as the team's vocal supporters and the building's acoustical properties make it the loudest stadium in the west. A fired-up (and liquored-up!) crowd -- who had been prepping since the early morning, what with GameDay and a national TV audience descended upon their campus -- only upped the level of crowd adversity that the Bears would face.
Personally, I wasn't terribly confident that Cal could come out on top in this one. Autzen Stadium has long been a house of horrors for a lot of teams, not just the Bears (just ask Oklahoma!), but Cal's most recent losses in Eugene had been of the agonizing variety. The Bears held a 4th-quarter lead in 2003, only to have their hopes extinguished as more than half the stadium lights failed, halting the game and stalling the Bears' momentum; when play resumed, Oregon woke up and came back for the victory. Two years later the Bears staged a fourth-quarter comeback of their own, and even had a shot at the win with a long field goal attempt as time expired, but the kick missed and Cal fell in overtime.
However, once I heard that ESPN GameDay would be coming (only the 2nd Cal football game they've attended), I just knew I had to make the trip, if only for the spectacle. (Getting free tickets to the sold-out game the Thursday before the game sure was a nice incentive, though.) Part of what makes college football special is that it's not just that it's a three hour spectacle; it's often a whole day of lead-up and hype, or even a whole week. Some great games are unexpectedly great, and so don't warrant much hype, and some never come close to living up to their advance billing, but when they do -- man, you never forget an experience like this, and if you pass up the chance, you'll never forgive yourself for passing up the opportunity to say "I was there!"
So part of what made this game awesome was the whole spectacle of the thing, the excess, the idea that this was not just a game, it was an event. There was the drive from the Bay Area to Eugene all day Friday, getting into our hotel well past midnight. There was staying up a couple more hours to produce a homemade sign we hoped -- hoped -- would be shown for a few short seconds on national television. There was the sleep deprivation caused by the insanely early call time we needed to make the GameDay telecast. The hours of cheering and yelling as we served en masse as a human studio set backdrop. The frantic waving of signs at anything that looked like a television camera, and the enthusiastic cheers directed at anyone wearing a hint of blue to go with their gold. It's really bizarre how the marathon of yelling and cheering (and drinking!) can shift your mindset from "This is a big game!" to "This is the most important event in the history of mankind, and my entire life up until this point will have been worthless if my team does not prevail on the gridiron today!"
If it seems like I'm taking forever in writing about this game to actually begin describing the events on the field, well, that's what it felt like for me. Hyped-up, sleep-deprived and exhausted before kickoff even took place, the actual game is almost a letdown at first, as the reality of football -- short passes, runs for two yards up the middle, even punts! -- displaces the hours of highlight reels that ABC/ESPN has conditioned me to expect form every snap of the ball.
Highlight reels like this, with all the boring plays removed (plus some Pink Floyd, which just kinda feels weird).
Billed as a collision between two high-octane offenses, with potential Heisman candidates on both offensive sides of the ball (Cal's DeSean Jackson and Oregon's Dennis Dixon), this game surprisingly opened as a taut defensive struggle. Both defenses came to play, and neither offense moved the ball well. Punting? I didn't drive ten hours to see punting! Yes, one quarter in, the score was a thrilling 3-0 Oregon, and that lone field goal didn't come until late in the quarter. Now, you'd need a real football analyst to break down the various chess matches going on out there, but my sense was that both offenses were holding back a little, feeling out opposing defenses for tendencies and weaknesses they could later exploit. And exploit they would! But not just yet...
The second quarter wasn't much more exciting than the first. Both teams traded punts again, before Cal finally put together a scoring drive, moving efficiently from their own 17 into the red zone, before stalling and settling for a Jordan Kay field goal. Still, Cal was on the board and the game was tied at 3. I don't know about how you are, but I always get nervous at the beginning of games, especially tough teams on the road, wondering whether Cal can really hang with these guys. Until they've traded a few possessions, until Cal has shown some ability to both score AND play defense, there's always a nagging, irrational worry in the back of my head that the Bears might get run out of the building. Now, with the game tied and Cal's scoring cherry popped, I could relax a little and settle into the rhythm of the game; the Bears might not win, but we have ourselves a game here, folks.
Unfortunately, Oregon would kill my optimism by stringing together the game's first touchdown drive, breaking off yardage in such big chunks that it didn't seem to matter that the Ducks found themselves in 2nd and 15, then 2nd and 14, then 2nd and 15 twice more. Even so, the Bears' defense stiffened on their side of the field, and when Cal stopped Jonathan Stewart for a 5-yard gain on 3rd and 12 from the 42, it looked like the Bears would get the ball back. Except...Marcus Ezeff would be flagged for a personal foul (late hit out-of-bounds) on the play, giving the Ducks a free first down. Stupid, stupid, stupid...the call might have seemed a little ticky-tack, but it's the sort of situation where you should never give the ref the opportunity to throw that flag.
Three plays later, Oregon would punch it into the end zone. Oregon 10, Cal 3. Dammit, we just gave them that touchdown. Marcus Ezeff, however, would redeem himself later...
Not this half, though. Cal would go three and out, and the Ducks took the lead into halftime. Not great, but honestly, down a score at halftime is about where I expected the Bears to be. The important thing was that Cal was hanging with the Ducks, and I still felt optimistic that the Bears had a good shot here.
And indeed, the second half started out well. Oregon goes three and out, and the Bears would march down the field, with Nate Longshore hitting DeSean Jackson a couple times and Justin Forsett ripping off runs of 11, 8, 24 and 7 yards. Tie game, right? Wrong. Not only would Cal stall once again in the red zone, but Jordan Kay's 33-yard field goal attempt sailed...well, I'm not sure where it sailed. It was high, I can tell you that. As I was standing in the end zone behind the play, I had a pretty damn good view of the kick, and to this day I could swear that kick was good. However, it was close, and since the kick was well above the height of the uprights, it was quite difficult to definitively confirm either way. Not that there was any in-stadium replay of the kick or anything. No, that would just be too helpful...I'm not bitter, I'm not, but at this point in the game, I couldn't help but think that but for a couple close calls by the ref, this game could have easily been 6-3 Cal instead of 10-3 Oregon.
No matter. The Defense seemed to have settled down and figured out the Oregon offense, forcing another three-and-out, though the ensuing punt was good enough to force DeSean Jackson to fair catch the ball. Indeed, every team in America saw Jackson's highlight punt return vs. Tennessee earlier that month, and opposing punters would often go to extreme lengths to minimize the damage Jackson could do. Oregon's Josh Syria was better than most, with booming punts coupled with good coverage keeping DJax in check; on the day, Jackson would amass just a single return yard.
DeSean Jackson can hurt you in multiple ways however, and on the next drive, Nate Longshore found him for a 25-yard TD strike that brought the game level again. Touchdown Bears!! Longshore himself was 4/5 on the drive, with completions of 14, 11, 3 and 25 yards to four different receivers. Much maligned for his performance later that year, it should be noted that on this day, Longshore was 28/45 passing for 285 yards, against a good defense on the road, and most importantly, with no big mistakes. You couldn't say that about the flashier Dennis Dixon.
Okay, okay, tie game again. Good. Let's see if the Bears can hold 'em. Oh, wait, they can't? Cr*p. Dixon hits Cameron Colvin from 42 yards out, and the Ducks are back in front. Moreoever, it's starting to get late in this game. The fourth quarter is starting, and Cal is only on its eighth possession of the game.
But Nate Longshore is 5/5 on the ensuing drive, including another long strike to Jackson, and Justin Forsett punches it in from a yard out to level the game once again at 17. Touchdooooowwwwwwwnnn! High fives all around! Now this was starting to feel like the offensive shootout we had all come to witness.
Image via cache.daylife.com
Okay, okay, tie game once again. Now we've really got to hold 'em. And we do! Dixon misfires twice on the next drive, Josh Syria's punt is short, and the Bears get the ball back at midfield! Finally, FINALLY, the Bears have the ball and a chance to take the lead, something that hasn't happened since the beginning of the first quarter. A couple plays later:
Nate Longshore pass complete to DeSean Jackson for 31 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.
Yes, even the ESPN play-by-play lists 'TOUCHDOWN' in all caps. At this point, I'm struggling with how realistic to make this recap, because my personal recollection is filled with "F**k yeah!" and "You're godd**n right!" and other, similar epithets. The Bears were on the road, in the hostile house of the eleventh-ranked team in the country, with a perfect record on the line, and they were winning! In the fourth quarter! 24-17! We can do this! It is at this point, I think, when I really start to believe we might win this game.
No, wait, it was definitely after the ensuing kickoff. Andrew Larson's kick doesn't go that deep, but it perfectly splits two Oregon players, who comically run into each other as they both go to make the catch. Instead, neither of them get ahold of the ball, and gunner extraordinaire Jahvid Best is Johnny-on-the-spot, pouncing on the loose ball and securing it for the Bears.
This was one of those games where it felt like if any team could just put together a two-score lead, they could hold on for victory, and right now, Cal was up 7, with the ball, and in field goal range. Here we go! We're gonna do this!! C'mon BEARS!!!
Uh, not yet. Incomplete pass. Holding. Incomplete pass again. Nate Longshore sacked on 3rd and 20. Ugh. Out of field goal range. Here you go, Oregon. Have the ball back...it's clear we've forgotten what to do with it. Oregon remembers, however, marching down the field for another touchdown. Tie game, 24-all. F**k.
Nor does the Bears' next possession inspire confidence. A nice pass to DJax gets a first down close to midfield, but that's as far as Cal would get. Three plays later the Bears found themselves with fourth down and ten to go; moreover, on the third down play, Oregon linebacker Kwame Agyeman hit Nate Longshore hard, and he went down awkwardly. A scary moment for Cal fans, and none of us knew had bad the injury was. Oh, this is not good, not good at all. The Bears were forced to punt, and with the game still tied and our quarterback limping off the field, momentum had swung firmly back in Oregon's camp. But not for long. In fact, the very next play is where it all started to go really wrong for the Ducks:
Dennis Dixon pass intercepted by Tom Schneider* at the Oregn 21, returned for no gain to the Oregn 21.
What? WHAT?!?! Interception!! I love it! Bears' ball! This game may have started out slow, but the fourth quarter was turning into a heck of an emotional rollercoaster. We're down. We're up! We're gonna win! Oh, just kidding, maybe not. Given how early I had gotten up to attend ESPN's GameDay taping, I'd been hyped up for about 9 hours straight at this point, and these momentum swings were starting to make me giddy.
We had the ball now, in great field position, but the virtually unknown redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Riley was under center. So what do you do with a green QB late in a tie game in a hostile environment? Hand the ball off to your senior running back, that's what. And it worked! Three Justin Forsett runs later...TOUCHDOWN!!!!! Cal 31, Oregon 24! There we go, there we go! That's what we NEED! Just over three minutes to go. We can do this! C'mon, Bears!
Well, maybe three minutes is too many to give the Oregon offense. Pass complete for 19 yards. Damn. Pass complete for 8 yards. Damn. Jonathan Stewart rush for 23 yards to the Cal 17. Damn damn damn. Waaaay to much time left. At this point, it'd be better to just let them score, giving Cal enough time to drive for a game-winning field goal or something. OR! Instead, much better idea:
Dennis Dixon pass intercepted by Tyson Alualu at the Cal 17, returned for 8 yards to the Cal 25.
Holy cr*p! Another interception?!?! Wahooooo! We're actually gonna pull this out! It was at this point, I think, that the celebrations from the visiting Cal fans really started to go crazy, and my wife's boss (standing next to us) not only hugs me, but kisses me on the cheek too. It was kinda wet, and definitely awkward. And you know what? In the moment, I didn't care that much.
So now, Riley comes out, and it's three straight runs that don't do a whole lot. Honestly, I'm not sure they were intended to. They do force Oregon to use their three timeouts up, but the Ducks still get the ball back with plenty of time. Timeouts are useful on defense, not so much on offense. This sequence right here is pretty much the one quibble I had with Tedford's playcalling that day. Now, I know he was doing the prudent thing, and he couldn't risk doing something tricky that would result in a costly turnover, but I knew the Bears were going to run basically up the middle three straight times. The Ducks defense clearly knew it too. When a first down would have iced the game, when everyone in the stadium knew that the backup QB wasn't going to attempt to pass the ball, perhaps just one pass attempt, something low-risk but a little unexpected to the outside, some misdirection, maybe? To seal the deal? Nope. Bears go three-and-out, the Ducks get the ball back with just under two minutes to play, and this drama has one final act.
And what an act! The Ducks start at their own 23. A six-yard pass out of bounds isn't great. Five more yards isn't too much, just keep that clock running. A 26-yard pass? Sh*t sh*t sh*t! Ok, they're still outside field goal range, and anyway 3 points does them no good...6 more yards, then 14 more! Sh*t, we can't stop these guys, they're at the 20 already! Dixon to Jaison Williams for 15 more yards. Ok, ok, we'll go to overtime. Overtime is ok. We can do this. I am resigned and accepting of overtime as how this game will end. Thankfully, Marcus Ezeff is not.
Redemption! - Image via www.sfgate.com
Ezeff, you'll remember, was responsible for the costly personal foul in the first half of the game which led to the Ducks first touchdown. As Dixon completed another pass to Cameron Colvin, which looks like it might be the game-tying TD, Ezeff redeems himself, hitting Colvin just right. The ball squirts out, rolls into the end zone and out of bounds. Suddenly, Autzen Stadium gets quiet. No signal on the field, but there are smatterings of cheers from Cal fans as we start to figure it out. Fumble, into and out of the end zone? That's a touchback! That's our ball! This game is over! Really, really, finally over!
Oregon fans: "Oh my god. Oh no."
Still no signal. That was a touchback, right? Right?!? They have to call it that way. Again, I was standing behind that same end zone, and had a pretty good view. Even without instant replay in the stadium, I knew it was a touchback. He was not in the end zone, and not out-of-bounds when he fumbled, and you could clearly see the ball go in the end zone and the roll out. Pac-10 refs can't get another one wrong, can they? They gotta get this one right. They just have to. Dan Fouts just can't believe that there still hasn't been a ruling on the field.
Witness Mr. Fouts incredulity at the continuing lack of a call on the field.
And the signal! Touchback!!! It's ours! At least, I think it is. From the signal on the field, we move immediately to one of the longest, tensest, most drawn-out video reviews I can remember. That's the thing about replay...while it's going on, absolutely nothing is happening. No videos or promotions or dot races or anything to distract the fans. The entire game hinges on the outcome of this review, and all we can do is just stand there helplessly and wait for our fate to be decided. Still, in the eternal wait for the final call, Cal fan's confidence starts to grow. The entire end zone starts chanting "That's our ball! That's our ball!" over and over. Looking around the stadium at various Oregon fans, you could tell a lot of them knew it too. If there was hope in their faces at all, it was hope that the refs would get this one wrong, or that they might see something on the replay that hadn't been apparent at full speed.
But then there it is! It's confirmed! Touchback!!! The BEARS are gonna win!!!!! WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! There's jumping and screaming and high-fives and hugging and exhilarated celebration and I don't think any more kisses from my wife's boss, but who knows? It's over! The Bears offense comes out in the victory formation, Nate Longshore takes his place under center to take the final knee, and Cal fans breathe a collective sigh of relief that not only are the Bears 5-0, soon to be ranked No. 3 in the nation, but our starting quarterback has returned and is OK. Nothing can stop us now.
Certainly, nothing stopped the celebration that afternoon and that night. It was an amazing day, an amazing weekend. To actually pull this game out, with all the hype and all the spectacle, to live up to the expectations and win in thrilling fashion with an incredible ending...man, what a game. And now, I will leave you with Reason #428 why I love college football:
Seen while leaving the stadium after Cal's thrilling 31-24 victory over Oregon, a distraught 12-year-old Ducks fan, sitting all alone, holding a homemade sign which read "Dixon Your Mouth".
Because it's so beautiful, here it is one more time:
If I were still 12, I could have wallpapered my room with this image. - Image via www.sfgate.com
*This information, courtesy of ESPN play-by-play, is almost certainly not correct. I don't remember who actually picked off Dixon, but if Cal kicker Tom Schneider was out their playing defense, I'll eat my hat. (Other sources confirm it was, in fact, Anthony Felder).