Oregon took the national stage Monday, which meant that folks who live in little bayou towns or grey Eastern cities or snooty Midwestern suburbs or remote desert outposts or frozen-north substations would probably get their first crack at hearing all the tired duck jokes that Pac-10 observers have been wearing out for years upon years.
Indeed, it is one of the sportswriter’s mightiest challenges - sneaking in references to Daffy, Donald, duck bills, duck tails (or tales), stacks of quacks, duck l’orange, Howard the, etc., without boring the jaded reader who has been deluged with these stale chestnuts each time Oregon loses a football game.
But despite that the Oregon Ducks of 1994 lost the Rose Bowl to the Nittany Lions of Penn State 38-20 on Monday, this is no time for fowl language.
These Ducks are unworthy of levity, undeserving of ridicule. They are above birdbrained barbs.
The Ducks played like Lions. Actually, they played with the Lions, at least for most of the game.
They put their hearts and talents on display in bars and living rooms across the land. They exhibited a dynamic, if occasionally errant, offense and a defense undaunted by the challenge of playing a storied team with an icon for a coach in hot pursuit of a national crown.
Oregon did OK.
“I don’t think the score indicated how we played,” linebacker Jeremy Asher said.
The oddsmakers made Penn State a 17-point favorite, and they were on the money, which is where they prefer to be.
The Ducks weren’t concerned with that. They didn’t come here to be roasted and served to a pack of Lions that needed a rout to gain its goal of being No. 1.
“We didn’t come here for a moral victory,” Oregon coach Rich Brooks said. “We came to win the football game.”
In the beginning, that would have seemed like so much football-coach bluster, because the first time Penn State had the ball, Ki-Jana Carter proved the shortest distance between two points is through Oregon’s defense. He raced 83 yards for a touchdown on the Lions’ first play.
To the Ducks’ credit, they did not crack under pressure. (The fact I didn’t say “quack” under pressure speaks to the profound effect this Oregon performance had on my belief system.)
Quarterback Danny O’Neil, who made a few bonehead mistakes but generally played well, led an 80-yard drive in five plays that tied it at 7 and, more importantly, served notice that if Penn State was using this game to make a statement, it should at least expect a rebuttal.
“Oregon made us look bad at times because they played well,” Lions coach Joe Paterno said later.
At the end of the first half, Oregon’s O’Neil didn’t keep track of the time too well. Suffice to say that if he were managing our nuclear-weapons program in the ‘60s the way he managed the clock then, we’d all be eating borscht right now.
Instead of throwing into the end zone, or out of bounds, he threw short and time ran out. “Poor choice on my part,” he fessed up later, ending much speculation on whether it was or not.
In the fourth quarter, the Ducks’ migratory pattern did not include the end zone. Oh, they scored with 2:44 left, but all that did was send a few hundred thousand gamblers scurrying for their rosary beads.
It was garbage time by then, plain and simple, and not because Penn State ground the Ducks into so much pate. No, our feathered friends just made a couple of dopey mistakes, like allowing a 72-yard kickoff return by Penn State’s Ambrose Fletcher in the third quarter, which set up the go-ahead touchdown and a 21-14 lead, and an interception of O’Neil, which enabled Carter to score from 3 yards out for a 28-14 advantage.
The Oregon Ducks came to Pasadena to win the Rose Bowl. They failed. But they emerged with a consolation prize that shouldn’t be discarded.
They showed the nation that the champions of the Pacific-10 Conference play superb and gutsy football, and they are to be respected.
“I don’t want to say this was a dream season, because in a dream season we would have won the Rose Bowl,” O’Neil said. “But this was a dream team.”
You can still tell all the Duck jokes you want. They’re just not as funny anymore.