TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) No more jokes, please, about those Ducks quacking under pressure.
Oregon, the often-overlooked school with the wacky nickname, earned a spot among the nation’s elite football programs with its powerhouse performance against Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl on Tuesday.
When the Oregon fans began chanting “We’re No.1,” with their team firmly in command in the third quarter, it seemed perfectly logical, a remarkable climb for a program that long toiled in obscure mediocrity.
The 38-16 victory which really wasn’t as close as the score indicates was the quality win on a national stage that coach Mike Bellotti’s program needed to convince the country what football fans in the West already knew. The class program of the Pac-10 is not in Los Angeles or Seattle, but in the damp, green Willamette Valley town of Eugene.
“We had a great opportunity today to make a statement. We did that,” said quarterback Joey Harrington, who ended his college career 25-3 as a starter. “We had our heads on straight, and we were ready to play for a piece of the national championship.”
Oregon entered the game ranked No.2 in the nation, but No.3 Colorado was favored to win.
Then the Ducks’ speed and Harrington’s poise and talent overwhelmed the Buffaloes’ defense. And Oregon’s defense, ranked 81st in the nation statistically, used quickness and energy to shut down Colorado’s powerful running game.
The Ducks made it clear from the moment they arrived in Arizona that they felt they should be playing a five-hour drive to the West in Pasadena, where the Bowl Championship Series’ title game between Nebraska and Miami will be staged today at the Rose Bowl.
“I thought we should be playing in that game, obviously,” Bellotti said. “It was very difficult to tell my team why we weren’t because I couldn’t come up with a lot of good reasons. I probably can’t now, even more so. I think we’ve done everything we can do.”
Although they were second in both major polls, the Ducks were a distant fifth in the BCS rankings. Still, if Nebraska beats Miami, Oregon could be national champions in the Associated Press media poll. The USA Today-ESPN poll, determined by a vote of coaches, automatically will declare the Nebraska-Miami winner the champion.
This is a program that ended a 27-year bowl drought when then-athletic director Bill Byrne now AD at Nebraska literally bought an invitation to the Independence Bowl in 1989. Six years later, coach Rich Brooks got Oregon to the Rose Bowl, then left for the NFL.
Bellotti, his offensive coordinator, took over and pledged straight-faced that the program’s goal was a national title.
With his calm, cool demeanor and high-powered offense, Bellotti has led the Ducks to unprecedented heights. Oregon won six games in the 1996 season, seven in ‘97, eight in ‘98, nine in ‘99, 10 in 2000 and 11 in 2001.
Harrington was magnificent in his college finale, completing 23 of 42 passes for 350 yards and four touchdowns. When Colorado would try something different on defense, the Pac-10 offensive player of the year would pick it up and take advantage.
Aware that they were expected to be overpowered, the Oregon defenders came into the game “angry, hostile, probably feeling quite a bit underrated and wanting to prove a point,” Bellotti said.
“You come in with a little chip on your shoulder,” Oregon linebacker David Moretti said, “and we came in and flew around and dominated.”
The Ducks headed back to Eugene early yesterday. They will crowd around the television set to root for the Cornhuskers.
Regardless of the outcome, they know they are no longer overlooked and underappreciated.
“Not only was it the biggest win, but it was on the biggest stage,” Harrington said, “and we did it in one of the most emphatic manners that a Duck team has ever played.”