After stopping briefly to check in at the Oakridge Best Western (with Oregon State and Arizona State clashing in Corvallis later that evening, all hotel rooms from Eugene to Albany are booked up), the rest of the trip is uneventful. Thankfully, the cold snap rolling through Southern Oregon is left behind to a balmy mid-70s day in Eugene. Stopping to pick up cash, we skillfully dodge a mob of peace protesters out to ruin everyone's day. Displaying the signage you would expect from this far-left crowd, I note to myself that the city of Eugene is in store for some "Bush-bashing" of a different sort later today.
With four hours till kickoff, parking hasn't quite become a nightmare. VanFan notes the many billboards in town showing Ducks players flying through the air comic-book style. I figure they will need some super powers if they want to win the game.
Parking is found a short way from the stadium, and our fee goes to a charity that's raising money to help the families of American troops who are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. With us both being former Marines, it's good to help our brothers.
For the most part, Duck fans are pretty polite and glad to have visitors. It's only high noon and some have already gotten quite inebriated (no beer served inside, I'm later to discover). As we walk through, we find fellow Trojan fans who parked next to us. We decide to walk together (the strength in numbers thing).
From there, we get our close-up look at Autzen Stadium in all its Phil Knight glory. As we round the perimeter to the tailgate area, we endure many quack calls. One lady fan flags us for being offside. I tell her, "I thought we'd get flagged for being out of bounds?"
VanFan and I decide to take in the sights of the tailgate. Duck fans young and old, male and female alike express at best a grudging respect for USC, though not without a lot of crackbacks about bandwagoning or asking us if we can breathe without the smog. I cannot stop VanFan from consorting with a most attractive young lady Duck fan. (Proud as she was, she declined to wager her "FUSC" shirt on the game's outcome)
We reach the outpost of sanctuary (or maybe sanity) with the tailgate tent set up by the Trojan Alumni Club of Portland. The $39 price for the BBQ lunch is almost as much as the face value of our tickets, but it turns into good time to spend with the Trojan family. We share stadium stories with tablemates, as well as predictions about the game while two TVs display the Notre Dame-Washington game.
The organizers thank us for coming, and introduce us to a pair of famous USC alums who are hanging out with us. Steve Sogge (photo, left) shared a fun story about handing off to OJ Simpson, and freely admitting that his 1967 National Championship team would not be able to hang with today's Trojans. Fellow USC alumnus and umpteen-Olympic gold medallist Janet Evans was also there to cheer on the team. Meeting her was a real treat!
Lunch is served and our host enlists our help in warding off some foolish Duck fans with a "SoCal Spellout." From there, we hear the rumble of drums in the distance. In eager anticipation, we know the Spirit of Troy marching band is on its way. Led by a quartet of lovely songleaders and a pair of yell leaders, Dr. Art Bartner leads the TMB's sophomore contingent on their first-ever road trip. Starting with "Tribute to Troy" followed immediately by "Fight On!" The enthusiastic sophomores launched into "Dance To The Music," "Johnny's Mambo" and other favorites like "Tusk", before finishing off with a resounding "Conquest" Even the boisterous Duck fans take a timeout to watch the greatest band in the world do it's pre-game warm-up. What a band!
We are soon on our way there. Besides the Coliseum, Autzen Stadium is certainly the best stadium the Pac-10 has to offer. Whereas the Coliseum is classic, Autzen is very contemporary, with all the modern amenities, and not a bad seat anywhere in the house.
To our disappointment, the team is warming up on the opposite side of the field. Carroll and Bellotti look like they are having a friendly conversation on the field. A bit of a roar goes up as our linemen and defense come out to warmup. Before heading into the locker rooms, the Trojan players took a moment to get and give love with the Trojan faithful in Section 39. Both team and fans are fired up.
As gametime approaches, the captains come out. In addition to Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, a healthy-looking Darnell Bing comes out to, along with Thomas Williams and Kaluka Maiava (Special Teams Captain... how's that for a freshman?!). That green and yellow mass of Ducks comes pouring out onto the field, and the place just goes Quack!
The decibel level goes down as we force the Ducks to punt on their opening drive. It cranks right back up when the punt glances off of William Buchanon's leg. The USC defense hustles to stop the Ducks, who settle for a field goal and Autzen is rocking. But I have no doubt that Leinart and Co. will go straight down the field.
True to my prediction, Leinart throws key passes to Dwayne Jarrett and Bush, while Lendale comes through with a big run, setting up first-and-goal at the Duck nine. Damn, how does Jarrett miss that pass?! Gipson returns the ball past midfield, but makes it clear he wants no piece of Leinart and steps out of bounds at the USC 38 (He must have seen a tape of Leinart in the 2003 Hawaii game).
Defense isn't getting the penetration into the backfield, and Kellen Clemens finds Demetrius Williams up the right sideline for a 37-yard touchdown pass. Duck fans go AFLAC, and there is plenty of taunting to go around. The noise is definitely affecting our offense in some way, but I'm not too concerned, even when Oregon tacks on another field goal to go up 13-0.
USC needs a spark, and on third-and-20 Leinart hits David Kirtman, who drives his way towards the first down (with some great downfield blocking too). Five plays later, we're in the end zone as Reggie does a signature dive on a 19-yard scoring pass from Leinart. Defense sacks Clemens and forces a punt, and we go right down. Mario Danelo makes his first field goal of the year, and we're already at halftime.
Taking a bathroom break, more taunting comes our way. I just nod and smile, knowing that the Trojans are getting the second half kickoff. My only comment is, "We'll see how long it lasts." After their halftime performance of the U of O Marching Band heads back to the mines, judging by their uniforms and hard hats ("Well, the world needs ditch-diggers too!")
USC is definitely fired up coming out after the intermission. Desmond Reed and Deuce Lutui take turns getting the fans fired up. Oregon on the other hand seems less inclined to pump up the crowd, maybe they're all business.
Reggie grabs the kickoff and returns it 20 yards. Two plays later, he's off for a 38-yard run. Leinart hits Dominique Byrd for 23 yards, then Bush for five before Jarrett atones for his first quarter miscue with an 11-yard touchdown. Somehow I think they have the lead for good, and it's confirmed as Lawrence Jackson sacks Clemens, and three passes to Jarrett set up LenDale White's first TD of the game. Trojan fans cup their ears because Ducks fans nearby have gone quiet.
Frostee Rucker gets another sack of Clemens, and Reggie silences the crowd again with a 26-yard punt return. Leinart shows his wheels again with that 19-yard scramble on third-and-10, what a move he put on that linebacker! LenDale runs 26 yards to set up another Leinart-to-Jarrett TD. Wow! Three touchdowns in the third quarter, and all of them right in front of the Trojan section for us to fully cheer on and appreciate.
Clemens must have gotten rattled, because the Ducks are going with Dennis Dixon at QB. The Ducks mount their only good drive of the second half before they have to turn it over again. Leinart and Smith connect on two great passes, and here comes Reggie with another highlight film run. Nice block by Leinart, too! Dixon is back in the game, but gets picked off by Josh Pinkard, and the Duck fans start heading for the exits. I hold my arms up, and shout, "Where are you going?" Too bad they missed LenDale's second touchdown. The Oregon student section, who earlier were abusing a blow-up doll of Matt Leinart break out a long banner which emphatically proclaims "Win or Lose, We Still Booze!!!" (...making Oregon parents the world over proud.)
Dr. Bartner strikes up the band, and the chant "BEAT THE SUN DEVILS!" goes along with "Conquest." Vanfan and I take a pic with the scoreboard in the background, and head off to find some autographs.
A small crowd is around the plaza area. One young man hopes to get an autograph from Leinart, I tell him good luck, knowing that No. 11 probably won't be signing anywhere. I get to see Steve Smith, who signs my book. I ask him how his leg was and he said it was fine. Our goal tonight was to meet Brandon and Ryan Ting. We spot them with friends. Brandon (or is it Ryan?) remembers my brother from the national championship celebration. VanFan and I take a pic with them, and we talk for a little bit about being identical twins, a uniqueness that only fellow identical twins can truly understand.
Darnell Bing, Brandon Hancock and Winston Justice are other players I'm able to meet. I tell them both that it's great to see them all back in action again. I also have the pleasure of meeting Sam Baker's dad, David who was sporting a very nice white No. 79 jersey. I told him that he did an incredible job handling the Al Lucas tragedy as the AFL commissioner. My brother also talked with Thomas Williams' stepfather, and it seems that all of our Trojan players really have great, supportive parents (the Malones, the Bings, the Van Blarcom's, etc., etc.)
Coach Carroll comes out and signs some autographs on his way to the team buses. He gets more than a few congratulations from Oregon fans, which must be very gratifying. I run into Dennis Slutak, and kid him about his rap performance on the "Undisputed" highlight video ("Drop it like it's hot... Drop it like it's hot!", "Slu" doesn't take the opportunity to repeat his dance moves) Coaches Rocky Seto, Brennan Carroll and the sharply dressed Steve Sarkisian, Lane Kiffin and Ken Norton watch as the players finish loading up.
Reggie Bush was able to outrun Oregon's defenders most of the night, but couldn't quite get away from some earnest little boys seeking his autograph. Fortunately, it looked like he got to the safety of the team buses before getting too swamped.
With the police escort in front, the buses peeled out to brave the still clogged traffic lanes around Autzen. And it's time for Vanfan and I to head out as well. We grab a late bite at a local sports bar. At first, we're jokingly refused service by some chagrined Duck fans, but then quickly welcomed. A couple of congratulations come our way from other Duck fans, many expressing wishes for USC to "win it all"; we also exchange high-fives with fellow Trojan fans as well. Being magnanimous, we had a good time talking with the Oregon faithful about the tough test their team gave ours (at least for the first half). All of us had equal loathing for east coast bias, the SEC superiority complex, and for our traditional rivals (one Oregon t-shirt proudly proclaimed "Ted Bundy was a Huskie".) At least in my experience, Oregon fans were a spirited, but good bunch, and I have no doubt the Ducks will be playing somewhere in the postseason and representing the Pac-10 well.
All in all, it was a spectacular road trip, one I wished didn't have to end. And for the unknown fellow WeAreSC member who was staying at the Best Western in Oakridge, sorry we didn't get a chance to hook up.