There were so many bad omens in the weekend leading up to the 2007 Sun Bowl. I should have seen the result coming.
I barely made my flight to El Paso after a random traffic jam in Dallas at 7:30 in the morning on a Saturday. To make the plane I had to sprint through Love Field in a thick winter coat, dragging a heavy carry-on bag filled with things I didn't even get to use. I was a hot, sweaty, probably unshaven mess relegated to a middle seat on the smelly last row of the plane.
My rental car in El Paso turned out to be a PT Cruiser.
Even though there were like 6000 USF fans out there, I didn't know anyone else who made the trip. This was the last year where you weren't risking your life by going to Juarez, and you didn't need a passport to cross the border yet, but I sure wasn't going to go into another country alone. Meanwhile, El Paso was and still is a tremendously boring city. The most interesting thing I did there was go bowling.
I decided I had to get out of town for a day and went to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, which is one of the most amazing places I've ever seen. Not so amazing: being stopped and questioned by a Border Patrol agent on my way there. I blame the PT Cruiser.
I stayed in two different hotels, even though I was only there two nights. The first hotel was a disaster. I could tell B.B. King had been in town recently because the trash wasn't taken out and one of his roadies left their schedule and set list on the night stand. The only club in downtown was right outside my window, pumping loud dance music until 2 in the morning. The room was so dry that I shocked myself just by shifting in the bed. Smartphones weren't a thing yet and the wi-fi didn't work, so I didn't know where to go buy some anti-static spray, or if anyplace was even open to sell it to me at that hour. The only way I could get to sleep was to throw all the blankets off the bed, sleep in a hoodie and jeans, and wrap myself in towels. The next morning I used their business center to book a different hotel and left.
So the trip to El Paso was awful. But the game itself promised to be fascinating. Both USF and Oregon had had their sights set a lot higher than the Sun Bowl at various times during the season. The Bulls, of course, won their first six games, beat Auburn and West Virginia, and were ranked #2 in the country before a string of three straight somewhat fluky losses derailed their Big East title chances. No one remembers this now, but USF finished 13th in F+ in 2007, by far their best-ever ranking. They were a damn good team that was actually a bit unlucky.
Oregon was an even better team (they finished 6th in F+) that was tremendously unlucky. They were ranked #2 and cruising towards at least a Rose Bowl bid until mid-November, when their Heisman-candidate QB Dennis Dixon blew out his knee in a shattering loss to Arizona. Then they lost his backup Brady Leaf the next week against UCLA and got shut out (the box score from that game is mesmerizing). Finally they lost the Civil War to Oregon State to finish the season at 8-4.
I remember being glad Oregon State won that game because it decided USF's opponent in the Sun Bowl, and I would have rather played what I perceived to be a seriously reeling Oregon team. How in the hell were they going to get back on track with their fourth-string quarterback and keep up with the Bulls?
Ah, but we all forgot one thing. The Ducks had this first-year offensive coordinator, a guy named Chip Kelly. USF had actually matched up with Kelly once before, way back in 1999 when he was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire. He dragged a seriously outmatched Wildcats team up and down the field for four quarters and two overtimes and rolled up nearly 500 yards of total offense. USF finally prevailed 42-41 when UNH faked the extra point in the second OT to go for the win and failed to convert. No one remembered that at the time, though, and certainly no one was thinking about Chip Kelly having over a month to get a very, very talented Oregon team ready to play.
The Bulls were in the game for awhile. The Ducks scored first and caught USF napping with a swinging-gate two-point conversion to lead 8-0. The teams traded field goals, and then in the middle of the second quarter Matt Grothe did this:
Of course I had seen a lot of Grothe's crazy magic scramble plays on TV during the season, but this was the first one I had ever seen live. As soon as he shook out of the sack attempt by massive David Faaeteete, everyone in the USF section just knew something awesome was going to happen. The whole crowd was buzzing after that play, except for the USF fans who were used to seeing Grothe do his thing.
The Bulls converted their own two-pointer to tie the game at 11. There was one worrying sign, though. USF had no answer for Oregon's running game and Jonathan Stewart in particular. He gashed the Bulls over and over again on zone reads and sweeps around end. Late in the second quarter, he took a handoff around the left side and the Ducks' massive offensive line blew out everyone at the point of attack. Stewart cruised 71 yards for a touchdown to give Oregon an 18-11 lead. USF managed a field goal right before halftime, but what we later came to know as the Oregon Death Blossom was about to be engaged.
(Speaking of halftime... Baby Bash! It was an Ashlee Simpson-esque performance that held no one's attention. I swear the crowd was booing by the time he was done.)
USF was getting pounded just as badly on the offensive line as they were on the defensive line. The Ducks had size on both lines and whipped USF's opposing units all day. The Bulls' running back rotation - Mike Ford, Jamar Taylor, Ben Williams, and Aston Samuels - had 14 carries for a grand total of 17 yards. The Ducks had 10 tackles for loss. Grothe was sacked three times and constantly under pressure.
There's always been a rumor that a few or some or many or perhaps all of the Bulls had partied hard in Juarez in the days before the game and weren't prepared or fit to play. It still seems implausible to me -- uhhh, bed checks, anyone? -- but really it wouldn't have mattered if it was true. Even if no one had ever crossed the border and the whole team was in bed by 8:00 every night like the Von Trapp children, they still would have been dump-trucked by an Oregon team that was a lot better than anyone realized.
Oregon scored easily on their first possession of the third quarter to make the lead 25-14. Then USF sped up the inevitable and started turning the ball over. Taurus Johnson fumbled in his own territory and the Ducks recovered, converting it into another touchdown. On the first play of USF's next possession, Matt Grothe threw an out pattern that was intercepted by Walter Thurmond III and run back for six. After Grothe threw another pick on the following possession, the Ducks added another score on Justin Roper's fourth touchdown pass of the day. Oregon put up 28 points in only 6:12 of game time and blew the game open, 46-14.
With the game gone completely pear-shaped, the local El Paso crowd got bored. So they turned to a couple distractions to pass the time (because apparently going home wasn't an option). First, they started collecting the extra point balls and tossing them all around the stadium. They would catch the kick, turn to a neighboring section and throw the ball towards it, and then someone would catch it, turn around, and throw it further down. Finally, when they got tired of that, they went with the old standby of fighting each other. There must have been a half-dozen fistfights in the upper reaches of the stadium in the fourth quarter. I have no idea what started them all. Boredom? Machismo? Some kind of "you think you're better than me" thing? Who knows.
And yet I left the stadium before any of them did to catch a flight home. There was no reason to stick around once USF emptied the bench. The only questions left were:
1. How long was this going to drag on? (Almost four hours.)
2. How many yards would Stewart get? (253, which is somehow not a record.)
3. Would USF give up the most points in their history? (Yes. The Ducks hit 56 after a Grant Gregory pick-six.)
4. Would this be their worst loss ever? (Not quite. 42-3 to Arkansas in 2002 is still the record.)
The final score was 56-21, but it felt like about 93-7 to anyone who had spent all that money and traveled all that way to see it happen. I suspect most USF fans deleted any memory of this game as soon as it ended. Just in case there are any mementos left out there, though... let's burn ‘em all.