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

Saturday, September 02, 2023

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 4 redux

Loyal frustrated followers might recall, or more likely chose to deliberately forget, that back in 2019, before the hourglass flipped and the world burned, this mostly movie blog started blogging about its favorite games of its favorite sport college football. The goal was to write those posts fast and keep them short, to appease people who probably did not want to read them anyway, stupid, stupid me, and I only wound up truly happy with four, maybe five. I have been meaning to go back and get the wrong ones right, tough luck, and begin today in order to eulogize the Pac-12 Conference ahead of its suddenly final season.

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

My favorite Bruce Springsteen concert is still my first and so, too, is my favorite Michigan/Ohio State game. It was 1986, the same season as college football’s inaugural Super Bowl, in a manner of speaking, when the stars aligned and #1 Miami played #2 Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl, though then and now I would tell you that Michigan and Ohio State felt bigger. It was the raucous atmosphere born of a deep sense of history, embodied in a rivalry game so grandiose that it is known as, simply, The Game. As full of itself as Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh who guaranteed victory, a la Super Bowl III, and made good only after Ohio State missed a field goal at the end to lose 26-24, sending their nemesis to the Rose Bowl back when going to Pasadena meant as much as finishing #1. I remember the thought of who they would play in the Granddaddy of the Bowl Games barely occurred to me. One of the Arizona schools, State, the Sun Devils, whatever, undoubtedly Wolverine roadkill. Except on New Year’s Day Michigan would lose, 22-15, in a score not as close as it sounded. I lived in central Iowa, after all, Big 10 country, and though that technically meant the Midwest, this was my introduction to East Coast Bias.

In a sport that for most of its existence had no playoff, relying exclusively on polls to crown so-called mythical champions, perception counted for a lot. You needed to be seen, and if you played on Pacific Time, it was only natural that east coast media would you see less. It’s absurd, I know, Who’s Number One? hanging on a time zone. But in this unfair absurdity you could see the sport’s overarching identity as regional rather than national, too vast to be housed under a single umbrella, conflicting swaths of country spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Once upon a time, myriad east coast schools eschewed conference affiliation to remain independent, reflected in how they all competed for their own year-end prize, The Lambert Trophy, while Texas echoed its Everything Is Bigger mantra and sense of honorary independence by essentially having the late Southwest Conference all to itself (Arkansas was the interloper and, appropriately, never felt at home). And then there was the Pac-10 cum Pac-12, its counterculture vibes (never forget man of letters Brent Musburger whining about Berkeley tree-huggers) and flashy aesthetics a welcome counterpoint to entities like the stodgy Big 10 (in that 1986 Rose Bowl, Michigan’s ancient, winged helmet clashed against the cheeky Sparky the Sun Devil on Arizona State’s), so geographically isolated from the rest of the college football world that it seemed to be played somewhere over the rainbow, or maybe after dark.

Pac-12 After Dark was a term born in the social media age, referring to the conference’s football games airing in extremely late-night windows on ESPN that tended toward wacky affairs such as UCLA upending Washington State 67-63 in 2019. Preeminent modern CFB scribe Spencer Hall has comically, if not altogether seriously, defined the term as “(t)he random and possibly scientifically valid correlation of Pac-12 games to a general atmosphere of chaos entirely independent of the execution of the game by the players and coaches.” For ESPN, Chantel Jennings pinpointed the birth of Pac-12 After Dark as a Twitter hashtag to October 11, 2014, though in a way this nomenclature has been around much longer, evinced in Rick Reilly’s contemporary Sports Illustrated piece about the 1986 Arizona State team noting how the desert heat necessitated that many of their games literally kick off after dark. It’s an anecdote evocative of the Pac-12’s eternal struggle for television exposure, one that contributed directly to its recent demise, even if simultaneously it gave the conference its charm. The Pac-12 was on its own clock and some of its grandest moments could be lost to time if you were not willing to stay up late to watch, like I did on September 25, 1999, or September 26, 1999, Central Time once the whole shebang concluded.

If some great college football games are all about high quality of play, some are just the opposite, infused with what Hall deems “a wild, wandering spirit.” If Y2K did not come to pass, Oregon and USC would pick up the slack a few months early, compelling in epitomizing best laid plans, rife with penalties, turnovers, and missed field goals. But there was more, something akin to that independent chaos described by Hall, a prank, perhaps, by a cruel cosmic deity, given how both teams lost a critical offensive player to injury before halftime (USC’s quarterback, Oregon’s running back), and most apropos of all, upon converting the game-tying field goal that ushered the game to overtime, Oregon kicker Nathan Villegas was hurt in the celebratory scrum. At that point, with no social media app to disseminate my thoughts, I remember thinking to myself, inadequately but accurately, “This game’s nuts.”

Nowadays, people tend to say a game is drunk, but for ‘99 Oregon/USC, the college football gods got drunk, went to bed, and then drunkenly sleepwalked, issuing nonsensical dictums with their eyes closed, 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. And though I am anti-overtime, believing that most games ending regulation all knotted up are meant to conclude that way, whether because extra time will be a spiritual letdown, or because it would be cosmically inappropriate to carry on, it felt proper in this case, because in the moment it really felt like the game might truly never end and that hypothesis deserved testing. And though both teams missed a field goal in the first overtime, further foreshadowing endlessness, after USC missed another field goal in the third overtime, Oregon’s backup kicker converted his, finally bringing the merry-go-round to a stop.

A never-ending game would have been fine with me. I had left my movie theater management job a month before and was set, that very Monday, to begin my foray into the 9-5 working world. I was less excited than anxious, and if the game stretched into eternity, maybe the world would go along with it, suspended in Pac-12 After Dark animation, infinitely delaying my own inevitable. It was a transitional period for the teams, too, Oregon in the infancy of its Phil Knight-funded ascent to the top while traditional power USC was mired in a valley, the brief, lamented Paul Hackett era, before Pete Carroll rode to the rescue a couple years later. This stripped the game of any broad ramifications supplying the sort of long-lasting impact required for those sometimes-short-sighted 100 Best College Football Game lists, underlined how in the age of YouTube, when so many old games are readily available, little footage of this one seems to exist, like it played out on the dark side of the moon and unless you were figuratively there, the transmission got cut. That’s what I like about it. Eight years before Twitter and 15 years before the documented use of Pac-12 After Dark, this improbable Oregon/USC game not only played out under the cover of darkness, but it also virtually disappeared into it, there, then gone. Like the Pac-12 Conference itself, nothing lasts forever.

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