The old men were still on the field when Oregon strong safety Chad Cota walked from the locker room onto the artificial turf of Autzen Stadium in Eugene for the second half of the Ducks' game against Arizona. The men had been members of Oregon's 1958 Rose Bowl team. That was Oregon's last Rose Bowl team, and its players were being inducted en masse into the school's athletic hall of fame. How's that for inspiration?
"When I saw those guys, it reminded me of how long it's been since Oregon has been to the Rose Bowl," said Cota later. "We have a chance to get there."
They have a chance because there are no superpowers or Games of the Century out west this fall. Instead, there is only an improbable four-way knot at the top of the Pac-10, a silent traffic jam over-whelmed by debates to the east over who's No. 1. Arizona, Oregon, Southern Cal and Washington State all have 4-1 records in the conference, they all have three league games remaining, and none is ranked in the top 15 in the nation. All, presumably, would be three-touchdown underdogs to Penn State in the Rose Bowl. "If it's us, we're not going," jokes USC coach John Robinson, whose Trojans have already been crushed 38-13 by the Nittany Lions.
The Pac-10 is a high-stakes race without a clear favorite. "Great stuff," says Washington State coach Mike Price. "People are tired of two-team races."
Upsets? There's no such thing in the Pac-10. Two weeks ago Cal got waxed 61-0 by USC. Seven days later the Golden Bears took a 20-2 lead over Washington State before falling 26-23. Oregon's one league loss is to Washington State, USC's is to probation-struck Washington, Arizona's is to Oregon, and Washington State's is to Arizona. The conference is as formless as a Seinfeld sketch.
"Tremendous ups and downs," says Robinson. "No one team dominant, four teams coming down the stretch. I haven't got this thing figured out at all."
From this jumble springs that most promising of concepts: opportunity. Oregon hasn't been to the Rose Bowl in 37 years? Peanuts. Washington State hasn't been to Pasadena since 1931. Arizona has never been. USC used to have a Rose Bowl parking spot—10 appearances in 14 years, between 1967 and '80—but hasn't been since '90.
No team has taken better advantage of this newfound parity than Oregon, even though 13 starters from last year's 5-6 squad had exhausted their eligibility, and three other possible first-stringers were lost before 1994 kicked off. Under Rich Brooks, who is in his 18th season as coach, the Ducks are 88-108-4. Indeed, football has sometimes taken a backseat even to track at Oregon (alma mater of Steve Prefontaine and Alberto Salazar), and 5,000 seats went unsold for last Saturday's meeting with preseason conference favorite Arizona.
But the Ducks came into the game on a run. They had recovered from their two nonleague losses, to Hawaii and Utah, and had beaten three top-25 teams in five weeks. The roll started with a 22-7 home win over USC, even though senior quarterback Danny O'Neil was sidelined with a staph infection in the ring finger of his throwing hand. The 21-7 loss to Washington State was followed by consecutive victories over Cal (23-7) and Washington (31-20).
After Oregon defeated Washington, Price left the following anonymous message on Brooks's answering machine: "Hey, I've got a whole box of RICH BROOKS SUCKS bumper stickers. I can't get rid of them now."
However, the 10-9 victory over Arizona is what elevated Oregon's stock and plunged the Pac-10 into chaos. The Ducks got the winning score on a 15-yard pass from O'Neil to Josh Wilcox with 12:17 to go. On four subsequent possessions the Wildcats netted a total of three yards against the Oregon defense.
At the start of the season the conference seemed rich in quarterbacks (e.g., Stanford's Steve Stenstrom, Cal's Dave Barr, Washington's Damon Huard, UCLA's Wayne Cook, USC's Rob Johnson) but has instead proved rich in defense. Two years ago Arizona stormed into prominence by stopping the run, and now most everybody in the league is trying to do the same. "High-risk man-to-man defenses," Robinson calls it.
Oregon, which is limiting opponents to 103 yards per game on the ground, held Arizona to 56 yards on 36 carries. "People can't run the football on us," says Brooks. "And we've got the best secondary I've ever had." The result of this conference-wide emphasis on defense has been a succession of tight games dependent on a big play here, a field goal there.
November promises more of the same. USC plays at Washington State on Saturday, and Arizona is at USC the week after. Oregon plays Arizona State in Eugene on Saturday and finishes at Stanford and Oregon State. Who has the edge? None of the teams can clinch a Rose Bowl berth simply by winning the rest of their games, and it's too early to tell which tiebreaker will apply. But the team of the moment is clearly the Ducks. "They're playing hard," says Robinson. "And they've got some real chemistry going for them."
They'll need every bit of it if they meet Penn State. "That would be a problem," says Brooks. But then he dreams: "It's a problem I'd like to have."