Over the course of a 12-game regular season, numerous moments defined the direction Oregon's fate would take.
Some threw the Ducks off course. But in a 9-3 season, there was more good than bad, helping the UO football team to a No. 15 national ranking entering a Holiday Bowl matchup against No. 13 Oklahoma State on Dec. 30 in San Diego.
Here are five plays without which the Ducks probably wouldn't have reached such heights. Included is commentary from the players involved, culled from video reviews of the plays with them this past week, and insights from former Pac-10 assistant coach Ken Woody, The Register-Guard's college football analyst.
Byrd blows 'em away
Sept. 13 at Purdue
The situation: Oregon (2-0) trails Purdue 20-6 in the third quarter and shows no signs of life on offense. With 5:10 left in the quarter, the Boilermakers set up to punt on fourth-and-one from their 42-yard line.
The play: Given the down and distance and Purdue's field position, the Ducks anticipate a fake and call for a "safe" return. That leaves the starting defense on the field, to watch for the fake and then set up a basic return - in this case, to the right side of the field.
Four down linemen rush the punter while four linebackers hesitate at the snap; the Ducks also have wings split out wide to each side to block Purdue's gunners. Chris Summers kicks it away, and the UO linebackers release down the field to block for returner Jairus Byrd, while the linemen peel out to set up a wall for Byrd farther up the right side.
Summers doesn't get great hang time on the punt, so Byrd senses the opportunity for a decent return. He has been cramping up throughout the game, and a "safe" return doesn't typically yield big gains. But a chance has presented itself.
"It came to me kind of quick," Byrd said. "As I caught it I saw a little crease. Once I got past that, I saw everything open up."
Byrd steps up between the gunners, getting a block to his right from Talmadge Jackson III. Oregon linebacker Spencer Paysinger is running toward Byrd to pick up a Purdue defender; there is a Boilermaker in the middle of the field and one to Paysinger's left (Byrd's right), and Paysinger has a decision to make.
"Usually we're supposed to block the closest inside man," Paysinger said. "But I saw (Byrd) already had him beat, so I jumped outside to the other guy."
Paysinger blocks the defender to his left, giving Byrd even more room to his right after he does indeed juke the Boilermaker running down the middle of the field. Byrd reaches the linemen who have set up their wall at midfield and slips between them and the sideline. With the end zone in sight, he arches his back to avoid the grasp of one defender - "my patented head tilt," he says - then dives across the goal line to avoid being caught at the last possible moment.
"All I did is run, and thank God I got there," said Byrd, whose 87-yard touchdown return sparked Oregon's comeback in a 32-26 overtime victory. "But it really wasn't anything special that I did. It was really set up by the other 10 guys out there."
Woody's analysis: The Boilermakers' left tackle was in the proper lane running downfield, but there were two Purdue players directly behind him, violating a cardinal rule in punt coverage: never follow the same color jersey downfield; adjust laterally to cover the field.
Also, Purdue's left guard was stymied off the line of scrimmage by Patrick Chung, who knocked the guard down. Chung dropped back and blocked the same man again just after Paysinger blocked his man. This opened up a lane for Byrd toward the sideline. Chung's second block created a pileup which forced the kicker - the last man covering - to avoid the bodies, taking him farther from Byrd, who had broken through three waves of Purdue players.
Blount blasts the Bruins
Oct. 11 vs. UCLA
The situation: The Ducks (4-2) have just allowed UCLA to get within a touchdown, 24-17, late in the fourth quarter. After the Bruins kick off, Oregon takes over on offense at its 31-yard line.
The play: Thinking ball control, the Ducks call a simple inside dive play for LeGarrette Blount. Three receivers run downfield to draw their defenders away from the play, and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli peels out into the right flat after the handoff, hoping to draw an outside linebacker with him.
It doesn't work. The Bruins clog the middle of the play, right where Blount is heading. But Oregon's offensive line takes care of business. First, the group steps to its left at the snap. Then, tight end Malachi Lewis and right tackle C.E. Kaiser turn their men outside while right guard Mark Lewis and center Max Unger turn to the inside. Blount, all 6-feet-2 and 229 pounds of him, slips between Kaiser and Lewis. The space is tight.
"It was really small, and I'm a big guy," said Blount, who actually made contact with both blockers.
UCLA's defense is flowing to its right to match the action the UO offensive line took at the snap. After sneaking through the line, Blount cuts against the grain. A lineman tries to tangle his legs, and another Bruin jumps on Blount's back, but he somehow keeps his feet.
"I thought I was going down when that last guy jumped on my back," Blount said. "Now I'm thinking, don't let anybody catch you."
As Blount fights to keep his balance, he gets a block from receiver Terence Scott. The running back finds his stride again and hits the sideline. A bunch of Bruins are in pursuit, but Masoli sprints back into the play and forces them to take bad angles.
"The game's on the line," Masoli said. "You've got to sacrifice the body, whatever it may take."
Blount's 69-yard touchdown run makes the lead two touchdowns, and allows the Ducks to survive a final touchdown by the Bruins with a minute left in the game.
Woody's analysis: Malachi Lewis blocked the defensive end over him, who lined up on his inside shade. This was a fatal mistake for UCLA, because the end was responsible for the hole that Blount eventually cut through. A defensive end should never allow a tight end to cut him off when aligned on his inside shoulder; this is a cardinal sin.
UCLA's left outside linebacker and safety then over-ran Blount as he cut back. The only defender who could have possibly tackled Blount was the left corner, but he was blocked by Scott, a most difficult block to sustain for a wide receiver in the open field.
Masoli's timely scramble
Nov. 8 vs. Stanford
The situation: Oregon (6-3) trails Stanford, 28-27, in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. It's third-and-eight from the Stanford 33, probably just outside the Ducks' field-goal range, so the UO offense needs to get some yardage.
The play: The Ducks run a play they've used several times in the game. Two receivers and tight end Ed Dickson are out to the left, while Scott is in the right slot. The three receivers to the left must get downfield and Scott will cross underneath them, with running back Jeremiah Johnson running a wheel route out to the right.
Earlier in the game, the defensive back covering Scott and the linebacker responsible for Johnson had been getting tangled up, leaving each open for passes. But this time, the linebacker waits and lets Scott cross underneath him, then runs out to pick up Johnson.
"This time they covered everybody," quarterback Jeremiah Masoli said. "But they left nobody on me. As soon as I saw the line open up a hole, I just took off."
Masoli heads upfield through a gap created by Mark Lewis and Unger. The quarterback then angles to his right to avoid a defender. He's headed right for Johnson, and the defender covering him on the wheel route.
"I peeked back and saw (Masoli) took off," Johnson said. "I kept running a bit, so it wouldn't trigger the dude to go get him."
Johnson engages his man just long enough to let Masoli slip by, then releases to avoid a holding call. A Stanford defender is closing on Masoli at around the 10-yard line, but rather than step out of bounds, the quarterback lowers his head and gains two more yards.
Three plays later, Blount scores a go-ahead touchdown, and the Ducks have a hard-fought victory.
Woody's analysis: At the snap, Mark Lewis and Kaiser stepped back and invited their rushers to go outside of them, opening up a big hole in the middle. Unger stepped to his left and solidified the pocket with Lewis.
Oregon's receivers were well-covered, but Stanford may have made a big mistake when the inside linebackers ran with Scott's crossing route, opening up the middle and creating a log jam which prevented the safety from coming up to make a play on Masoli.
The Ducks' offensive protection and the Cardinal's failure to account for the quarterback made this the play of the game - and perhaps the season for Oregon.
Chung's pick six
Nov. 15 vs. Arizona
The situation: The Ducks (7-3) got a rushing touchdown from Masoli to open the game. Arizona took over at its 22-yard line after the kickoff, and gained three yards in two plays to set up third-and-seven.
The play: Oregon has three down linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs on the field. The Ducks are anticipating a pass, and blitz linebackers Jerome Boyd and Spencer Paysinger from either end to pressure quarterback Willie Tuitama.
Chung is playing man coverage on tight end Rob Gronkowski, and he gets help from nose tackle Will Tukuafu, who drops back to cover the middle of the field. Chung makes contact with the tight end at the snap and Gronkowski, who started on the right side of the formation, cuts outside to the near sideline.
"You have to be aggressive with a big guy," Chung said. "You've got to get in his face."
The linebackers collapse the pocket, and Tuitama slips out to his right. Tukuafu releases from his position and rushes the quarterback, forcing a decision. Gronkowski has cut back toward the middle of the field and appears to have a step on Chung, so Tuitama tries a pass.
Chung steps in front and picks it off at the 31-yard line.
"Once I caught the ball, all I saw was open grass," Chung said. "You've just got to run as fast as you can. You can't think about anything else."
Chung's momentum is carrying him to the right side of the field, and he continues toward that direction. Deep pass routes have eliminated most of Arizona's fastest players from the action, so only linemen have a chance at Chung. Paysinger, in the middle of the play after rushing Tuitama, picks off a Wildcat guard, the only block Chung needs.
"Before the play the quarterback saw a different coverage and (audibled)," Paysinger said. "After he checked the play we rolled into our original coverage, which confused him. Because he never should have thrown the pass. Now, I'm just trying to hit the closest man to (Chung)."
The 31-yard touchdown return puts Oregon ahead 14-0 and, along with the new black uniforms the Ducks unveiled, brings the crowd to a fever pitch.
And the Ducks will need every bit of that momentum in building a 45-17 halftime lead on the way to a 55-45 victory.
Woody's analysis: Right defensive end Kenny Rowe slanted inside at the snap, drawing the block of the left guard and creating a pile with the center. Left end Nick Reed slanted inside as well, all the way around the center pile, breaking through the protection and forcing Tuitama out of the pocket.
Gronkowski then made a critical mistake: he "faded" on his route, going downfield and not straight across the field, which would have kept Chung on his hip. This allowed Chung to run in front of Gronkowski and pick off the football.
This play showed how important a pass rush can be to force a throw that can be intercepted. Sacks draw more attention, but this kind of pass rush can be even more effective if it leads to a turnover.
Johnson dazzleS in Corvallis
Nov. 29 at Oregon State
The situation: Oregon (8-3) leads 23-10 with time dwindling down in the first half. Because of a personal foul penalty, the Ducks are backed up to third-and-19 from their own 17-yard line, with the clock approaching a minute left in the quarter.
The play: Oregon's call is remarkably similar to the play against UCLA. From a three-receiver set, the Ducks run the ball up the middle, this time with Johnson.
"Our goal was to get out of the half, just get a couple yards for (punter) Josh Syria to get the ball off," Johnson said.
Oregon State shades its defense to the left side of Oregon's formation. That's where Masoli would go were he to keep the ball in the option. So prior to the snap, he tells Johnson it's going to be a handoff.
"Those guys came hard off the edge, so my option was to give the ball, because they would have tackled me if I would have kept it," Masoli said.
Also, the Beavers stacked two linebackers and a strong safety in the middle, and rolled their free safety from the right side of Oregon's formation to the middle of the field. It completely opened up the right side for Johnson.
A gaping hole opens, as Mark Lewis and Unger double-team a tackle and Kaiser forces the defensive end outside. It isn't until the 40-yard line that Johnson encounters a defender.
Johnson runs at a safety, then moves to the right, forcing the defender to dive. A stiff-arm takes care of that safety, but the hesitation move allowed another safety to close from behind. Rather than go for the tackle, Al Afalava punches the ball out of Johnson's hands.
"I thought it was out," Johnson said. "I thought I had fumbled it."
Somehow, Johnson manages to secure the ball just as he approaches the sideline. Another defender is closing at full speed, but Johnson shows off his impressive strength by reaching back and using another stiff-arm to shed the tackle.
A final defender takes a sharp angle and reaches Johnson at the 5-yard line, but he leans forward across the goal line, as the defender flies past him and out of bounds.
"I gave everything I had trying to get into the end zone," Johnson said.
Oregon takes a 30-10 lead on the 83-yard scoring run. Oregon State's next offensive play is an interception that Walter Thurmond III returns for a touchdown, and the Ducks are on their way to the win.
Woody's analysis: Oregon State's defense got too cute on this play. Attempting to fool the Ducks on third-and-19, they blitzed two outside linebackers, dropped off two interior defenders and then missed four tackles on an outstanding running effort by Johnson. The key blocks were provided by Unger and Mark Lewis, who caved the nose man downfield, cutting off the pursuit of the inside linebacker.
Right tackle Kaiser dropped and his rusher went outside, but when the Beaver saw Johnson sprinting inside, he tried to fall back in the hole and make the tackle. In an excellent second effort, Kaiser reacted and cut him off, opening up a huge hole for Johnson inside and then toward the sideline. OSU's left corner was blocked by Scott for several seconds, another difficult block to maintain until the runner gets downfield.
Johnson's score was one of the finest individual efforts ever by an Oregon running back. The Beavers' defense was guilty of poor alignment, pursuit and tackling, and the play effectively ended their hopes of going to the Rose Bowl.
Coach Mike Riley might have second-guessed himself at halftime: better they had played a conservative defense, tackled Johnson and forced the punt.
The ones that cost them
Sept. 20 vs. Boise State: On Oregon's third offensive play, Jeremiah Masoli takes a helmet-to-helmet hit that knocks him out of the game. With Justin Roper nursing a knee injury, the Ducks are down to freshman quarterbacks, and they lose 37-32.
Oct. 4 at USC: The Ducks lead 10-3 midway through the second quarter, when the Trojans run a pick play on fourth down and throw for a 34-yard touchdown. Those were the first of 41 straight points by USC to close the game.
Nov. 1 at Cal: Having closed to within 19-16, Oregon is poised to take a lead early in the fourth quarter. But on third-and-one from the Cal 10-yard line, the Ducks are whistled for a false start. After failing to convert the ensuing third down, Oregon misses a field goal, and later in the quarter the Ducks muff a punt to set up Cal's clinching touchdown.
On the web
Watch video of Oregon's top five season highlights at www.registerguard.com/blogs