How BYU’s last visit to Eugene — 32 years ago — almost undid Ty Detmer’s Heisman dreams
BYU entered its game at Oregon in 1990 with a banged up QB, a fact no one knew before — or after — the game was played
When BYU played at Oregon 32 years ago, there were two little-known subplots to the game of which many people may not know. Both had an impact on the contest, and one of them almost damaged Ty Detmer’s chances to win the Heisman Trophy.
BYU had won its first four games that season, including the dramatic win over No. 1-ranked Miami in Provo. Following the win over the Hurricanes, BYU defeated Washington State and San Diego State. The SDSU game broke a trend of close, exciting games with the Aztecs with BYU waltzing to a 62-34 victory.
BYU was 4-0 and ranked fourth in The Associated Press poll when it headed to Eugene. What most people didn’t know was that Detmer had injured his throwing hand during the SDSU game and had hardly thrown a ball in practice the week before. There was some question as to whether he would be able to play.
BYU coaches of course kept the information about the injury tightly under wraps. LaVell Edwards called me into his office to tell me about the injury. He asked me not to say anything to the media about it. Nothing came up about the injury until Brent Musburger from ABC showed up in Provo to watch practice. He was scheduled to broadcast the game on Saturday. After watching the team work out, he came to my office with a question.
“I noticed that Ty Detmer wasn’t throwing the ball,” he said. “Is there something wrong with him?” I can’t remember what I said to get out of the situation, but I talked my way around it without really answering. Somehow, news about the injury stayed out of the media, and BYU headed to Eugene intending to start Detmer.
I was nervous about the situation. I knew the nation would be watching Detmer, the prohibitive favorite to win the Heisman, and if he had an off day, it might put doubt in the minds of the voters. I secretly wished the news of the injury had leaked so that people would understand if he had a bad day.
I sat in the press box and watched BYU get dominated by the Ducks. Detmer was obviously not his normal self. He completed 33 of 57 passes for 442 yards and two touchdowns. Those are pretty good stats; however, he also threw five interceptions and was sacked five times as the team lost, 32-16.
Edwards made no mention of Detmer’s injury in postgame interviews, so the injury remained a secret. The reviews of Detmer’s performance after the game were not positive, and his Heisman stock dropped significantly. Instead of being a shoe-in to win the award, he had dropped back into a pack of contenders that included Raghib “Rocket” Ismail of Notre Dame, Eric Bieniemy of Colorado, Shawn Moore of Virginia and David Klingler of Houston.
Fortunately, Detmer rebounded, played well the rest of the season and won the Heisman with 1,482 votes compared to 1,177 for Ismail.
The second subplot of the game involved Autzen Stadium’s artificial turf and BYU’s Nike shoes. The day of the game it was a pleasant 70 degrees and sunny. For some reason, Oregon’s groundskeepers had sprinklers on the field to wet down the carpet before the game. This was the older version of artificial turf that was essentially a carpet with padding underneath, not the Field Turf used on most of the fields today. We couldn’t figure out why they were watering the field, although we were assured they did it before every game.
When the game started, BYU’s players had trouble with their footing and were slipping when they went to cut. It happened multiple times, to the point the TV announcers mentioned that BYU apparently was wearing the wrong shoes for the turf.
Phil Knight, founder of Nike and a huge Oregon supporter, was in his private box watching the game and sent a messenger to the TV booth to tell them to stop criticizing BYU’s shoes. BYU and Oregon were both wearing Nike shoes, although BYU’s were a different style than Oregon’s. I don’t recall if BYU made shoe adjustments at halftime, but the “traction” issue had definitely impacted BYU in the first half.
Both of these little-known situations contributed to BYU’s loss all those years ago, although the main reason for the loss was that Oregon outplayed BYU. BYU dropped from No. 4 to No. 11 in the AP poll after the loss but went on to win six straight before being drubbed by Hawaii on the same day Detmer was named winner of the Heisman Trophy. BYU also lost big to Texas A&M in the Holiday Bowl and finished the season ranked No. 22.
Val Hale is a contributor to the Deseret News and was BYU’s athletic director from 1999-2004; prior to that he was BYU’s sports information director.
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