CLIPPING THE DUCKS' WINGS
SI's Hank Hersch was at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif., on Saturday when Stanford hosted Oregon. His report:
If the Oregon football lottery ever expands beyond the picking of NFL games, this might be a parlay worth playing: 1) that the University of Oregon Ducks will get off to a rousing start and stir up Top 20 talk, thanks to a soft-spoken quarterback named Bill Musgrave; 2) that soon thereafter, because of injuries or some other reason, Oregon will sputter; 3) that the Ducks will have a harder time getting their seventh victory of the season than Lewis and Clark did finding the Willamette Valley; and 4) that, as they have since 1963, they'll sit in Eugene in the rain come bowl time.
So it has been for the past two years for Oregon, and so it was in microcosm last Saturday at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto. There were the Ducks, 2-0 and coming off a 44-6 rout of Iowa that had them chasing the Top 20. There were the Ducks, taking a 17-0 lead behind a fast-strike defense and Musgrave's unerring right arm. Finally, there were the Ducks, letting Stanford, winless in two games, rise from the ash heap in the final 7:19 to gain an 18-17, last-play victory. "That was just a pathetic performance," said Ducks nosetackle David Cusano. "I can't believe we actually lost."
The win was the Cardinal's first under new coach Dennis Green and its first in seemingly aeons in the waning moments. To earn it, Stanford stuffed Oregon's ball-control running game (just 59 yards on 26 carries) and then struck the way Green likes to talk—fast.
Cardinal quarterback Brian Johnson started the comeback by directing a 58-yard drive that ended with a 21-yard TD pass to halfback Gary Taylor with 7:19 remaining. When Johnson suffered a bruised shoulder with 3:13 to play, freshman Steve Smith stepped in and finished off a 61-yard drive on a sneak with 1:11 left. A two-point conversion pass to fullback Scott Eschelman made the score 17-15. That drive marked a significant turnaround for Smith, whose erratic play as a starter in Stanford's previous games had led to Green's benching him against the Ducks. When he was pressed into duty on Saturday, Smith found redemption, hitting six of six passes for 42 yards. "I guess I'm finding out what college football is all about," he said.
Following its second TD, Stanford recovered a well-executed onside kick and, behind Smith, moved to the Oregon 20 with just five seconds remaining. With no other reasonable option available to him, Green sent out junior kicker John Hopkins for a 37-yard field goal try, even though Hopkins had missed earlier attempts of 49, 42 and 42 yards that afternoon. "For the fourth time in the game," Hopkins said, "I prayed." This time, he and the vast majority of the fans at the stadium got an answer they liked.
The Ducks, meanwhile, felt a familiar sinking feeling. In 1987, they began 4-1 only to wind up 6-5; last year, they tumbled from 6-1 to 6-6. Oregon has not had a seven-win season since 1964, and the Ducks utter the number seven with more longing than crapshooters. "It's like we're treading water and trying to pull ourselves onto the dock," Musgrave says. "But we can also drown."
Injuries to Musgrave the past two years have sped the Ducks' undoing; Oregon was 12-4 when he was able to play, 2-8 when he wasn't. The pale, bespectacled son of an optometrist from Grand Junction, Colo., Musgrave, now a junior, spoke so softly as a freshman that teammates often couldn't hear his signals at the line of scrimmage. Yet he showed no reluctance to duke it out with an opposing lineman. He also knows how to command the offense, find the open receiver and deliver the ball quickly, even if his arm has been judged the sixth-strongest among the Ducks' seven quarterbacks. "Throwing downfield isn't something I enjoy, because I don't do it well," Musgrave says. "But I do feel like I can put the ball where I want."
Musgrave's unevenness reflected his team's: In the first half he completed 12 of 18 passes for 184 yards and two brilliant TDs; in the second he was 4 for 12 for 29 yards. "I didn't play well today," Musgrave said afterward. "I played more not to make mistakes."