Originally posted on FishDuck.com:
The 1997 Oregon Ducks football season is often overlooked in the program’s history. By the year’s end the Ducks were a bowl champion with all the makings of a finely-tuned offensive juggernaut set for big things in 98’, but it certainly didn’t start that way. Patchwork lines, first-time starters, a dual quarterback rotation, and other tinkering was the storyline of much of the year, the Ducks searching to find their identity as a program with most of the Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl era players gone.
For all the success that has come to the University of Oregon football program in the ensuing years, it is important to recall the years where growth and development paved the path to achievement. With that in mind, we recall on the 15th anniversary of the games played, two of the contests in 1997—Nevada and Fresno State.Oregon at Nevada
For the first time in history, the Nevada Wolfpack played host to a Pac-10 team at Mackay Stadium, a showdown vs. the University of Oregon. A packed house, including 5,000 Oregon Duck diehards, were on hand to watch. Oregon had problems putting away Nevada the year before, losing key starters to injury, winning 44-30 in a game closer than the score indicated.
Akili Smith was one of the most-hyped players Oregon had ever recruited
Oregon, coming off a week one victory, was heavily reliant on their defense. It didn’t take Nevada long to show they meant business. Oregon pinned Nevada deep on the kickoff, but the Wolf Pack offense came out strong, completing three passes for first downs to midfield. Nevada drove to into Oregon territory and was in the redzone before anyone knew it. On third and goal, Nevada converted to a wide-open receiver in motion on a crossing route, and just like that Oregon trailed 7-0.
Akili Smith would get his second career start for the Ducks after a rocky start over Arizona the previous week. Nevada’s high caliber defense did not make it any easier for Smith and co., as he was heavily blitzed by the Nevada defense. The first quarter ended with Nevada maintaining their touchdown lead.
Oregon would narrowly escape disaster early in the second quarter, as Nevada drove right down the field, only to be held to a field goal thanks to a Peter Sirmon stop on third and goal. Looking for a spark from the misfiring offensive attack, Coach Mike Bellotti called on quarterback Jason Maas to replace Akili Smith, and he responded by leading Oregon into the redzone. However, the drive would stall again, with running back Saladin McCullough fumbling for the second time in the first half.
Oregon, held in check all half by a scrappy Nevada defense, would finally break through. After a long drive, Saladin McCullough, after two early fumbles, punched it in, tying the game 7-7. Nevada would capitalize on a penalty on the kickoff to nab a field goal and enter the half up 10-7.
Saladin McCullough (1996-97) racked up 24 touchdowns in 18 games as a Duck
Starting the second half, Oregon came up empty, continuing a trend that had been haunting them all game long. Nevada, fortunately, was also suffering from the exact same problem–long drives leading to no points. Despite being heavily outplayed, Oregon only tailed 10-7, and found themselves in position to steal one on the road in a hostile house hellbent on a statement home victory to build their program upon.
After another Oregon punt, Nevada would cough it up, giving the Ducks a much-needed spark. Oregon cornerback Justin Wilcox would make a huge play, forcing a Nevada receiver to fumble, safety Jaiya Figueras jumping on the ball giving Oregon its first great field position all game. Oregon almost fumbled right back ascoughed up the ball, but the Ducks recovered and drove inside the 20. A penalty on a missed field goal attempt would give Oregon another shot to tie the game, and on the second try the kick stayed true.
Knotted at ten, Oregon and Nevada headed to the fourth quarter both thinking they had wasted opportunities to seize control of the game. After a Nevada field goal, Jason Maas started Oregon’s comeback with a big conversion on a third down run. Several plays later from the Nevada 16, Maas would hit Saladin McCullough for his second TD of the game, giving Oregon a 17-13 lead, their first of the game.
Nevada, in their biggest non-conference home game ever, would not go down without a fight. In less than three minutes, Nevada quarterback John Dutton led his team on a long drive right down the field in only eight plays. The drive was capped by a ten-yard touchdown pass to receiver Trevor Insley, who would later go on to set the NCAA-I record for most career receiving yards–a record he still holds. With less than four minutes in the game, Oregon trailed 20-17.
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