EUGENE, Ore. — A siege of dreadful football was barely ending for the Oregon Ducks when Utah arrived at Autzen Stadium in 1994. Oregon had produced just seven winning seasons is the previous 29.
The flashy, sassy Ducks were yet to come.
A New Year’s bowl seemed dubious for the Ducks, early that season. They had already been set back by a loss at Hawaii in the second game. Still, Utah seemed a manageable opponent.
Ute coach Ron McBride, though, was good at getting his team ready for high-profile games. The Utes had several things going for them, including Mike McCoy, Kevin Dyson, Curtis Marsh and Luther Elliss.
Elliss was laying over on his way to an All-Pro career in the NFL. Dyson and Marsh, too, would play in the pros, and McCoy — later an NFL coach — was quarterbacking Utah to its first bowl win in 30 years.
The Utes beat Oregon, 34-16.
Little did they know big things were ahead for both programs.
“Anytime you played a Pac-12 team, or a Big Ten team, especially if it had a name,” McBride said this week, “it really helped your identity.”
In that case, it will work out well for the Utes on Saturday, should they win. Oregon isn’t the glamorous national title contender it was in 2010-14, when it finished ranked fourth or higher four times in five years. But it’s still Oregon.
This year’s edition isn’t the overpowering team of recent seasons; it’s 1-4 in conference play. The starting quarterback has been out with an injury. But don’t dismiss the Ducks too soon. They might have their problems, but that modest Oregon team that Utah defeated in 1994 went on to play in the Rose Bowl.
“They’re really talented with all their speed,” McBride said.
While the Ducks were rapidly improving two decades ago, it wasn’t until Nike founder Phil Knight began pumping millions into the program that things went into overdrive.
Suddenly being a Duck was as cool as it gets.
“They’d send their own jet to pick up recruits, back when you could do that,” McBride said.
Elaborate facilities were installed and the program became everything faculty highbrows despise: successful, flamboyant and rich. Even as Utah was building its Eccles Football Center in 2013, Oregon was leading out with its own $68 million facility — twice what Utah’s cost. It includes ventilated lockers, hand-made mosaic bathroom walls, a pro scout room with stocked pantry, and hand-woven rugs from Nepal.
Now many power conference teams have something similar, if less grandiose. But Oregon’s is the most bodacious.
The Ducks can spin off thousands of uniform combinations from their basic green and yellow. Though the team has scaled back that approach this season, it’s still easily recognizable.
A little bit of duck goes a long way.
Utah routed No. 13 Oregon 62-20 in 2015, in one of the most shocking wins in Ute history. That came after losing 51-27 the previous year.
Utah and Oregon restarted their series in 1991, after a 15-year absence. McBride thought he had a chance, even then. The Utes won that game 24-17.
“Yeah, I thought we were good,” he said. “Particularly good.”
That 1991 Utah team won seven games but missed a bowl invitation. However, the ’94 team went 10-2, winning the Freedom Bowl. Oregon went on to lose in the Rose Bowl to Penn State that same year.
The goal for today’s Oregon is modest: get back to winning. Like Utah, the Ducks have lost three straight conference games. They still have speed and size the Utes can envy. And they’re still the flashiest team in the country. But it’s not all about the uniforms. It’s no coincidence the best player on Utah’s offense this year is Darren Carrington II — an Oregon transfer.
Assessing his team’s failures so far this year, Oregon coach Willie Taggart told media at a Monday press conference, "It's not about who we're playing; it's about us."
Such an Oregon thing to say.