' ' Cinema Romantico: My Favorite College Football Games: Game 14

Saturday, September 05, 2020

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 14

Loyal frustrated followers might recall that last autumn, Cinema Romantico, nominally a movie blog, departed that realm on Saturdays to discuss its favorite college football games. Turns out this series no one probably read might have come a year early, though perhaps not, since I felt as if there was something I needed to get out about my love of this complicated game before…who knew what. Who knew what might well be all this. But. There was one more game, a 14th game, I wanted to write about right at the end of the series and did not because I could not quite figure out what I wanted to say about it. That game, however, is generally considered one of college football’s worst, if not the worst, and given what’s going on, well, it seems appropriate, if not poetic, to write about this game in 2020 rather than 2019. Cheers, or whatever the sorrowful opposite of cheers is. 

November 19, 1983: Oregon – 0 Oregon State – 0

In writing about the fabled 1992 NCAA Tournament East Regional between Duke and Kentucky, Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff provided defining criteria for what constitutes a great basketball game: drama, significance and quality of play. Let’s apply Wolff’s idea to college football and tweak. What would make for a bad college football game – nay, the worst college football game ever played? First, college football’s nadir should be a game that was, simply, ineptly played, like Iowa averaging one yard per rush and gaining but 168 total yards while “holding” Penn State to a couple safeties in an odious 6-4 win in 2004. Second, the worst college football game ever played must stand out in some way, attaining an infamous sort of significance, like Texas Tech and Centenary in 1939 combining for an NCAA record 77 punts in a rain-ridden scoreless tie. Finally, the worst college football game of all time should broach the realm of tragicomic, like Wake Forest’s double-overtime 6-3 win over Virginia Tech, so amusingly woebegone it launched a beloved meme, or Georgia Tech’s legendary 222-0 demolition of poor Cumberland in 1916, accompanied by as many tall tales as eye-popping stats, a necessary chapter in any book of strange but true sports stories.

Oregon and Oregon State achieved all this and more on November 19, 1983. A faux-festive glut of gaffes, the teams combined for 11 fumbles, five interceptions, and four missed field goals in what will stand the test of time, given the sport’s advent of overtime in 1995, as the last 0-0 game in college football history. Played in an onslaught of Pacific Northwest rain, vividly described by Oregon Coach Rich Brooks as “coming down the steps like waterfalls”, the game has colloquially come to be known as The Toilet Bowl. That nickname, in fact, so apropos and descriptive, is what, I suspect, has made such a woeful game everlasting. After all, contested in an era when few games were televised, it’s not like many people saw it. Was it that bad? Well, reader, by virtue of the Oregon State Athletic Department recording a game seemingly without any virtue at all and uploading that video to the Internet, I, having watched it, can confirm the legends are true.

Though the announcers repeatedly deem it a game of field position, suggesting it as one in which the defenses hold the offenses at bay, it’s more an unrelenting comedy of errors, where for every good play there are nine bad ones and three egregious ones, foreshadowed in an opening drive that concludes with Oregon State fumbling the ball away. Attempts at downed punts near the opponent’s goal line are muffed and quarterbacks and running backs go the wrong way on simple handoffs and collide. When a receiver is wide open in the end zone, the Oregon quarterback throws the ball at his feet and when the Oregon quarterback hits a wide receiver square in the numbers, the receiver drops it. Oregon tries a trick play early in the 4th quarter by having a running back throw deep though his fake run is hardly convincing, more bizarrely shambolic, and his hurl into triple coverage is inevitably intercepted; on Oregon State’s ensuing play, they try to a run a reverse to the tight end but the play ends before it starts, called off by a procedure penalty. This is how it goes. If the game can be defined by a single play it is the first one of the second quarter when the Oregon State punter fields the long snap, nearly fumbling it given the rain, and kicks it away to the Oregon return man who fields it and, yes, fumbles it right back to Oregon State. As the Oregon State defender sprints off the field, celebrating, he loses his grip on the ball and, trying to snag it out of mid-air, loses his footing and tumbles to the turf along with the ball. It’s the rare pratfall dead ball fumble. It’s the slapstick aurora borealis.

We have a predilection for finding inspiration in the worst moments. It’s instinct to watch the Toilet Bowl and want to dress it up in some unlikely encouraging light. But there is no light to be found, only grey skies and rain, which Ladd McKittrick, the unfortunate Oregon State quarterback that day, understood. “Are you really going to do this to me?” he asked OregonLive for a commemorative Toilet Bowl piece, admirably forgoing applying some quasi-silver lining to a painful memory to essentially plead the fifth. “I wasn’t there. I don’t remember it.” In that same article, Rich Brooks was quoted as telling reporters afterwards: “It was like neither team wanted to win. It seemed like there was a force out there that said, ‘We aren't going to let either team score.’” That is a familiar losing refrain, writing off losing as cosmic intervention rather than looking inward at what you, as coach, might have done wrong. But in the case of 1983 Oregon / Oregon State, reader, I am, for once, inclined to accept this explanation as not mere coach speak but astute observation, an apt description of gridiron destiny.

On the game’s first drive, Oregon State’s play-by-play man mentions that a colleague has literally opened an umbrella inside the press box on account of sideways rain, an image the cameraman picks up a little later. It’s not just funny, it’s the Toilet Bowl in visual capsule, the rare time a football game was not just a football game but something more, a manifestation of that old idiom: into each life a little rain must fall.

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