' ' Cinema Romantico: My Favorite College Football Games: Game 4

Saturday, September 21, 2019

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 4

September 25, 1999: Oregon - 33 USC - 30 (3OT)

“They’ve gone to plaid.” This is what Barf, half-man, half-dog, of Mel Brooks’s “Spaceballs” observes when the colossal enemy spaceship hurtles past trailed by a distinct tartan pattern outlined against the black of space. The ship has gone to plaid by forsaking light speed for so-called ludicrous speed instead. College football’s light speed, in this age of offensive wizardry, evoked in inscrutable terms like RPOs and the Air Raid, is easy to achieve, but ludicrous speed is a point far beyond simple gaudy stats and piles of points, less about the designs of perfectionist coaches than the alternating folly and glory of youth, glimpsed in the space of Maryland’s legendary 31 point second-half comeback against Miami in 1984 when their go-ahead 68-yard touchdown pass ricocheted off the hands of the latter’s Darrell Fullington and directly into the arms of the former’s Greg Hill who coasted in for the six points, the kind of moment so improbable that even if rationally you know a Higher Power isn’t in control you nevertheless wonder. You could define this moment through the prism of turnover margin, just as you could view Tennessee blocking Notre Dame’s last second field goal attempt to win in 1991 through the lens of special teams efficiency. You could, or you could just marvel at how Tennessee’s Jeremy Lincoln only blocked the field goal because the ball glanced off his butt. You’re not correcting a butt-blocked field goal in the film room, man, just throw your hands in the air and let it go.

I’ve seen a few games go to plaid over the years, but none have ever attained the same ludicrous speed as Oregon and USC in 1999, which simply in its post-9 PM CST kickoff had a Twilight Zone feeling only amplified by a decidedly You-Had-To-See-It-To-Believe-It air. That vibe is evoked in how, even now, in the Youtube era, little footage of this game seems to exist, as if it’s been forgotten, mabye because it has, stemming perhaps from USC being at the nadir of the lamented Paul Hackett era and Oregon having only begun its Phil Knight-funded ascent, stripping the game of any broad ramifications supplying the sort of long-lasting impact it would have needed to be included on those The 100 Best College Football Game lists. All I could find was a brief clip of the last-minute field goal Oregon kicked to knot the game at 23, a dramatic moment ending in farcical tragedy when the kicker, Nathan Villegas, was inadvertently injured in the ensuing celebratory scrum, a gridiron version of Best Laid Plans emblemizing the overall game, not so much a thriller as a thrilling comedy of errors, electrifying in its all-out absurdity, brought home in how that game-tying field goal came to be in the first place – that is, USC going up 23-20 on a touchdown with a couple minutes left but snapping the extra-point attempt over their own kicker’s head to keep the score within three, Oregon fumbling the ensuing kickoff back to USC, USC missing a field goal, and then Oregon driving down the field to tie. Whew.

This elicited overtime, which I remain adamantly against, though here it was at least emotionally true, merely deepening the madness. And when USC opened the third overtime by missing its third field goal in, like, what, the last 12 minutes, I thought how desperately I wanted Oregon to not score again too and deepen the madness some more, at which point I knew for sure they’d score and win, which they did. Down was up; up was down; college football wonderland was never so good.

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