Shades of UCLA

Can this be Deja Vu? Recall another year when the Oregon Ducks were undefeated and headed to the Rose Bowl to play the UCLA Bruins early in the Pac-10 Conference football schedule. Those Ducks of yore, as with this year's team, were playing in the shadow of the most successful season in Oregon football history, or at least in modern times. They had a league championship in their pocket. They had lost their 1st Team All-Conference quarterback from the previous year to graduation...

...and were starting a junior in the program who was considered to be more mobile and to have a stronger arm. Sound familiar?

Yes, I am thinking of the 1995 Oregon team that beat UCLA 38-31 on September 16 in the Rose Bowl. It was Mike Bellotti's first year as the Duck's head coach replacing Rich Brooks and Terry Donahue's last year coaching the Bruins, the next year replaced by Bob Toledo. Junior quarterback Tony Graziani was at the helm for Oregon having replaced Danny O'Neil who had led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl the previous year, their first New Year's Day bowl game in 37 years. To this day, O'Neill still holds the Rose Bowl record for the most pass completions (41).

The September 16 match-up was a defining game for the Ducks who later achieved a 9-2 season facing Colorado on New Year's Day in the Cotton Bowl. The Bruins were ranked 12th in nation and loaded with talent. They returned eight starters on offense including their entire offensive line and a tailback, Karim Abdul-Jabbar, who would later play in the Pros. On defense, the Bruins returned nine starters including linebacker Donnie Edwards and safety Abdul McCullough. Coming into the Oregon game they had rolled Miami 31-8 in their season opener and then beat BYU 23-9 in Provo. This was a good UCLA team.

Oregon on the other hand, was returning eight and seven starters on offense and defense respectively. The Ducks had beaten Utah in Salt Lake City in their opener, 27-20. In their second game, the Ducks barely squeaked by Illinois 34-31 at home with the help of a memorable sack-fumble-touchdown recovery by safety Jaiya Figueras.

Despite the importance of the contest and the sunny 88-degree weather the stadium was less than half full with only 42,537 fans attending including an estimated 6,000-plus Duck fans. Oregon was first to score on an 18-yard run by fullback A.J. Jelks culminating a seven-play, 66-yard drive. Oregon then scored again on a 21-yard pass from Graziani to tight end Josh Wilcox with 2:40 remaining in the first quarter. Playing inspired football, the Oregon defense managed to hold UCLA at bay in the first quarter. In the second quarter UCLA's Bjorn Merten kicked a 25-yard field goal, which was answered by an 11-yard touchdown run by Oregon tailback Ricky Whittle. The Ducks now led 21-3. UCLA's Derek Ayers then got free for a 41-yard touchdown pass from Rob Walker with 2:16 left in the half and Oregon's Joshua Smith kicked a 39-yard field goal with no time remaining. At half time Oregon led 24-10. In the third quarter UCLA scored 14 unanswered points on a three-yard run by quarterback Cade McNown and a 52-yard run by tailback Skip Hicks. The fourth quarter had Oregon pulling ahead on the strength of a seven-yard touchdown run by Graziani. But, UCLA managed to tie the game again with 3:52 left when Ayers scored from 29 yards. Oregon's final drive and final points were the result of a 79-yard drive involving eight plays including a three-yard touchdown pass to receiver Cristin McLemore. However, the game was not over. Not by a long shot. With 1:02 remaining UCLA drove to goal line only to find Abdul-Jabbar rejected on UCLA's last play of the game by the heroic efforts of Figueras and cornerback LaMont Woods.

In the end, the Ducks were able to persevere and hang on to win against UCLA. It took courageous play from the defense, which not only had to come up with the final stop but also had to endure three lost fumbles during the course of the game. It also took a near perfect day from Graziani who completed 19 of 35 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns, ran for a third score and threw no interceptions. Yet, Graziani's performance wasn't enough, the Ducks needed to rush for 192 yards on 39 carries with Whittle amassing more than 200 yards in all-purpose running.

There are many similarities between the game played on September 16, 1995 in the Rose Bowl and the game that will be played there this coming Saturday. UCLA is good this year. Very good. Not only did they put up 625 yards of offense in route to their 43-35 victory over Oregon State last weekend, but they have also beaten some very good teams this year. Consider their season opening 30-19 win over Colorado State, the same team that has beat Colorado. In the Bruin's second game they beat Oklahoma State 38-24, the same Cowboys team that just gave then-No. 2 Texas all they could handle last weekend narrowly losing 17-15. And although UCLA did lose to Colorado in their third game of the year, the Bruins appear to be refocused since then and building momentum with big wins over San Diego State (43-7) and Oregon State mentioned earlier. The Bruins are undefeated in conference play and have only one loss on the season. This makes them dangerous. Last year, when Oregon met UCLA, the Bruins already had two conference losses to Stanford and Washington State and were out of the national championship race despite their pre-conference wins over Alabama, Kansas and Ohio State. No, Oregon will have to play UCLA this year as they did in 1995 when the Bruins have much to lose. But, the Ducks have much to lose too. And, if the Ducks really are to be a team of destiny this year, it will take the experience of games such as this to steel their hearts and prepare themselves for the remaining conference games, which are all shaping up to be hotly contested battles.

Game Details: No. 7 (both polls) Oregon (5-0, 1-0) is hosted by No. 25 (USA Today/ESPN) UCLA, 4-1 overall and 1-0 in Pac-10 play, in the Rose Bowl this Saturday afternoon, Oct. 12. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. PST. The game is UCLA's Pac-10 Conference home opener and will be televised live on a regional basis by ABC Sports. Keith Jackson and Dan Fouts will call the action with Todd Harris on the sidelines.

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