Vernon Adams Jr. realized a dream when Oregon offered him a chance to be the team’s starting quarterback.
But Adams also has a few recurring nightmares from the bumpy ride that was the Ducks’ 2015 season.
Specifically, second-and-6 at the Michigan State 33-yard line with 1 minute, 24 seconds left in regulation.
“I will never forget that play,” Adams recalled. “I see that play all the time. The corner falls, and I was like, ‘I’m not under-throwing this.’
“And I overthrew it.”
Oregon will face Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl on Dec. 31 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Entering the previous meeting between the programs, the Ducks were ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press poll and the Spartans were No. 5.
ESPN’s College GameDay was on campus in East Lansing, Mich., for the critical nonconference showdown, and the Goodyear Blimp hovered over Spartan Stadium that September evening.
A year after Marcus Mariota led Oregon to a comeback win over the Spartans en route to the inaugural College Football Playoff, Adams planned to keep the good times rolling for the defending Pac-12 champions.
As soon as the Eastern Washington graduate transfer was officially cleared to play during fall camp, the Ducks were ready to light up the scoreboard again. The talented supporting cast for Adams included running back Royce Freeman and wide receivers Bralon Addison, Charles Nelson, Dwayne Stanford and Byron Marshall.
Another player who greatly impacted the season: John Kreifels.
The Eastern Washington defensive rover delivered a costly late hit on Adams in the fourth quarter of the Ducks’ 61-42 romp in the opener at Autzen Stadium.
Kreifels was ejected and taunted the crowd after targeting his former teammate’s head, but Adams knew the cheap shot had damaged his right hand.
“I was running and I slid, and the dude came and tried to finish the play off, make sure I was down or whatever,” Adams said. “People thought I was concussed because of the way I got up. I was slow and stuff. But really I was just trying to sell the flag because I knew he would get in trouble.
“Then as I was getting up I was like, ‘Damn, my finger hurts.’ I go inside and see my finger is broken. It was on that play.”
Kreifels was suspended for Eastern Washington’s next game, but the damage was done for Oregon.
Due to the fractured index finger on his throwing hand, Adams did not take any snaps leading up to the Michigan State game. The coaching staff still wanted him to start over Jeff Lockie.
“I didn’t even practice all week and they were like, ‘All right, we still need you to play. This is College GameDay, everybody’s watching, and you’ve still got to play,’” Adams said. “I knew it was going to be a little off, but the confidence that I have in myself and the athletes I had around me … I was like, ‘All I gotta do is get them the ball and let them do the rest.’”
Adams, who took a pain-numbing shot in his finger before kickoff, threw two interceptions that he believed could have been touchdown passes if he were healthy.
The Ducks were still in the game after getting a 2-yard touchdown run by Freeman in the first quarter, an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown by Addison in the third quarter and a 2-yard touchdown run by Adams early in the fourth quarter.
“Man, that game was crazy,” Adams said. “One of my top-five favorite games.”
After a 38-yard touchdown run by LJ Scott, who the Ducks will have to face again in the Redbox Bowl, the Spartans led 31-21 with 10:51 remaining.
Adams answered with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Marshall to cap a nine-play, 80-yard drive. Then Oregon’s defense forced a three-and-out, which gave the Ducks a chance to steal the win.
Freeman had the Michigan State defense on its heels after runs of 11 and 4 yards to start the drive.
Adams vividly remembers seeing Arjen Colquhoun, a senior cornerback, stumble and lose his balanced trying to keep up with the speedy Marshall down the sideline.
Rece Davis, the play-by-play announcer during the ABC broadcast, saw the play developing the same way during his call:
“Adams, taking a shot, Marshall’s out there! Was by himself. And if Adams could have put it on him, the Ducks would have had the lead.”
Adams, who had the two underthrown picks on his mind, sailed the pass over Marshall’s head in the end zone. He was sacked for a 10-yard loss on the next play and threw an incompletion on fourth-and-16 to end the threat.
“I wasn’t excited when he threw it. Then I saw how open (Marshall) was, and I was excited,” Scott Frost, the current Nebraska coach who was Adams’ offensive coordinator at Oregon, said after the game. “Then it was a yard-and-a-half too far. Games like this, a yard-and-a-half makes all the difference. …
“I thought he played a whale of a game considering.”
Adams sat out of the Ducks’ 61-28 victory over Georgia State the next week and re-injured his finger during practice a couple of days before the Pac-12 opener against Utah.
For the second time, Adams wrapped and splinted his painfully swollen index finger and gave it the old college try. He finished 2-for-7 passing for 26 yards and a touchdown before coming out of the 62-20 blowout loss to the Utes.
“We were down (20-6), and I missed a curl route to Dwayne Stanford,” Adams said. “I went to coach Frost upstairs and said, ‘Coach, I’m not going back in. I’m making us look bad, I’m making myself look bad. We’re going to have to go with Lockie. My finger is messed up, I can’t do it.’”
Oregon defeated Colorado and lost in double-overtime to Washington State while Adams let his injury heal.
Adams’ return coincided with the end of Darren Carrington’s six-game NCAA suspension, and the Ducks reeled off six consecutive wins with the dynamic duo inserted into the offense.
The run started with a 26-20 win at Washington and included victories over eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford (38-36) and South Division champion USC (48-28).
Duck fans have to wonder how differently the 2015 season, and perhaps the Mark Helfrich era, would have ended had Adams not suffered the broken finger during an otherwise meaningless fourth quarter against an FCS opponent.
“Man, that’s tough,” Adams said of the hypothetical. “If I didn’t hurt my finger in the regular season, the only game we probably would have lost was Utah. They beat us on every side of the ball — offense, defense, special teams. They had that crazy punt return to the house. I can actually say they beat us.
“Michigan State, we only lost by three, and my finger was freshly broke. I didn’t practice all week. We would have beat them, and I think would have got to the playoffs. It’s just so tough.”
Instead, Michigan State went on to earn a berth in the College Football Playoff. Oregon finished the regular season 9-3 and had to settle for the Alamo Bowl.
The Ducks were blowing out 11th-ranked TCU when Adams suffered a concussion late in the second quarter. Then a 31-0 lead turned into the infamous 47-41 triple-overtime croak job against the Horned Frogs.
“I should have just handed the ball off to Royce, and I pulled it right before the half trying to get another score and hurt myself,” Adams said. “You get that 10th win and it seems like you’re headed in the right direction. We were headed in the right direction.
“It’s just tough the next year when they tried to do the graduate transfer again and different things were happening.”
Oregon turned to another Big Sky quarterback, Montana State’s Dakota Prukop, in 2016 before throwing true freshman Justin Herbert into the 4-8 grease fire.
Less than two years removed from coaching in the national championship game, Helfrich and his staff were fired.
“I love Oregon and I appreciate Eugene and all those fans and the coaches that brought me in for one year,” Adams said. “Because Oregon was my dream school and everything about it was awesome. I’m sad that I hurt my finger, but everything happens for a reason and I’m trying to get back to the top.”
Adams, like Mariota during his Heisman Trophy season, led the FBS in passer rating at Oregon, completing 64.9 percent of his attempts for 2,643 yards with 26 touchdowns and six interceptions in 10 games.
The 5-foot-11 signal-caller, who Michigan State coach Mike Dantonio compared to Russell Wilson before the 2015 matchup, admits he didn’t work hard enough to make his NFL dream come true at the draft.
“When I went to the NFL combine I was partying,” Adams said. “I went up there so sloppy, like 210 pounds, fat, no muscle. I was just stuffing my face and partying. I completely understand why they didn’t draft me. If I went there now and they see my body now, it’s completely different. …
“Everybody knows what I did on the field, everybody knows my numbers,. We all know that. But I didn’t train correctly to get where I wanted to get to.”
Since his one-and-done season with the Ducks, Adams has been traded by three different Canadian Football League teams.
Adams, who has been working out and spending quality time with his 4-year-old son, Vernon Kash Adams III, this offseason, believes he has finally found a fit with the Montreal Alouettes. The team just signed him to a two-year contract extension.