Fifteen years ago tomorrow, an unheralded, underdog Utah football team went into Eugene, Ore., and emerged with a shocking 34-16 victory. It was a defining win for the Utes in what turned out to be a watershed season of sorts for both programs.
The Utes went on to finish with a 10-2 record, their first 10-win season in history, including a victory in the Freedom Bowl.
The Ducks overcame that loss and went on to win their first Pac-10 title in 37 years with a resulting appearance in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1958. In the final AP rankings, Utah was ranked No. 10 and Oregon No. 11.
Since then, both programs have probably enjoyed more success than they achieved in the entire previous century of football.
Before 1994, losing seasons were almost as common as winning seasons for both programs, as Oregon compiled an overall winning percentage of just 51.4, while Utah won only 56.5 percent of its games. In the 30 years leading up to 1994, the Utes had just 12 winning seasons, while the Ducks had only nine.
Since 1994, however, it's been a different story. Oregon has had just one losing season since '94, while Utah has just two. Oregon has gone to 13 bowl games, winning six, while Utah has gone to 10 bowl games and won nine of them. Amazingly, the two programs have nearly identical records over the last 15 years, with Utah going 125-55 and Oregon 125-59.
When the two schools tangle on Saturday afternoon (1:30 p.m. MDT) on the third weekend of September, just as they did in 1994, Utah goes in with a 2-0 record and Oregon is 1-1, just as they were in 1994.
However, there also are a lot of differences.
Besides the fact that neither was thought of as a national program back then, there wasn't much interest in the game. A crowd of just 25,358 showed up on a perfect afternoon. Back then, Aut?zen Stadium held 42,000 — 12,000 fewer than today's capacity, which was increased with a $90 million renovation in 2002. This game will be the 61st straight sellout with a crowd in excess of 55,000.
This year's game will be televised nationally on ESPN. Back then, it was not televised live, with a replay shown on something called Prime Sports Network two nights later.
The '94 Utes had a senior-laden team led by quarterback Mike McCoy and defensive tackle Luther Elliss. They came into that Sept. 17 game having beaten Utah State in Logan and Idaho State 66-0 the week before. Oregon, meanwhile, was coming off a loss in Hawaii after an opening win over Portland State.
Utah got off to a fast start, taking the opening kickoff and going 80 yards in 11 plays, with Juan Johnson going the final two yards for a touchdown. However, two Ute turnovers led to a pair of Duck scores, a field goal and a touchdown, to give Oregon the momentum at 10-7.
The game turned late in the first half on a gutsy call by the Utes. They set up for a 26-yard field goal, but holder Jason Jones stood up and bulled his way up the middle for a 9-yard touchdown run. Then, just before the half, Kareem Leary intercepted a Duck pass and went 38 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-10 at halftime.
Oregon cut the lead to 21-16 early in the third quarter and held the Utes to just five yards on three possessions. But the Ducks missed a pair of long field goals and Utah scored late in the third quarter on a pass from McCoy to Deron Claiborne and added a fourth-quarter TD on a pass from McCoy to Robert Hamilton.
Ute coach Kyle Whittingham was in his first year as a Utah assistant and, of course, his memory of the game centers on the defense, particularly the defensive line, which he coached.
"We played well that game, particularly on defense," Whittingham said. "We had a great front with Luther Elliss, Henry Kaufusi and Bronzell Miller. It was a day the defense played very well and we came out with a win."
Since that pivotal game in 1994, the Utes and Ducks have met four times, with Oregon winning three times, including both games in Eugene. In 1997, the Ducks had little trouble in a 31-13 victory, and in 2001, Oregon won 24-10. The Utes came back to win in 2003, 17-13 at home, with Alex Smith leading the way.
This Saturday, the Utes will be trying to duplicate their stunning 1994 win and perhaps catapult them to another outstanding season.
Utes on the air
No. 16 Utah (2-0)at Oregon (1-1)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m., MT