Washington, favored by 36½ points Saturday, was a 37-point favorite in 1985 against lowly Oregon State and ended up losing 21-20.
It couldn’t possibly happen, could it?
There’s no way No. 5 Washington, favored by 36½ points against Oregon State, could drop their first game of the season Saturday, right?
Logic says no way. Basic observation skills do, too.
But history? History says the Huskies better not get cocky.
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“I’m not real keen on talking about it,” former UW quarterback Hugh Millen said. “It was the worst day of my football life.”
The day was October 19, 1985, and the opponent was Oregon State. The Huskies had won their first three Pac-10 games that season and came in as 37-point favorites.
If that spread seems excessive, consider that OSU had won only three conference games in the previous six seasons and had been outscored 97-0 in the previous two games.
As Beavers quarterback Rich Gonzales said: “I was surprised we weren’t 50-point underdogs.”
Gonzales, mind you, was a freshman filling in for the injured Erik Wilhelm. And Washington — playing at home that day — was fresh off an 11-win season in which it topped No. 2 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
Perhaps that’s why Orlando Sentinel columnist David Whitley described the matchup as “David versus Goliath if David had two broken legs and had chickenpox.” This was going to be the easiest practice the Huskies had all year.
Whitley, by the way, wasn’t the only scribe to roast the Beavers before kickoff. Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Steve Rudman compared Oregon State to Barney Fife in a piece that ran the day of the game.
Rumor has it that OSU coaches slipped copies of the story under every player’s hotel-room door. What happened next were four of the most inconceivable/incredible quarters in each program’s history.
Washington scored first when Jeff Jaeger made a 28-yard field goal less than seven minutes into the game, but Gonzales responded with a 43-yard touchdown pass less than three minutes later. The Huskies took a 10-7 lead on a 2-yard touchdown run by Tony Covington in the second quarter, but Gonzales again answered with a 20-yard scoring run of his own.
For onlookers at Husky Stadium, drivers listening to the game, or any carbon-based organism catching wind of the score, Oregon State’s 14-10 halftime lead over UW prompted nothing but utter disbelief. But at least order would be restored shortly, right?
“Oregon State was never going to win,” said Huskies play-by-by announcer Bob Rondeau, who was behind the mic that day just like he will be Saturday. “They were hanging in there, but they weren’t going to win — it was Oregon State!”
Of course they weren’t going to win. Washington retook the lead when Covington scored on a 14-yard run in the third quarter, then went up by six when Jaeger drilled a 43-yard field goal with 7:49 left in the fourth.
But six minutes later, OSU’s Andre Todd blocked Thane Cleland’s punt into UW’s end zone, and after a divine Beavers bounce, Oregon State’s Lavance Northington fell on the ball and put his team up 21-20. The Huskies didn’t score again.
Rondeau said that, after the game, Huskies offensive lineman Tim Burnham asked a reporter to pinch him because “we just lost to the (bleeping) Beavers.” It was like paper beating scissors on a botched snip.
And regardless of their role in the all-time upset, the memories endure for everyone involved.
Rudman, for instance, gets asked about the game every year. He was the P-I columnist who made the Barney Fife quip, and for some reason, became the scapegoat for Huskies fans everywhere.
Local TV stations lambasted him for revving the Beavers up. Hundreds of die-hards wrote letters demanding his firing. The only person who came to his defense was UW coach Don James, who made it clear to the public that Rudman, uh, didn’t play in the game!
“It was astonishing that so much emphasis could have been placed on one story in the newspaper,” said Rudman, who recalled a headline reading “Rudman has a Black Heart” atop the letters to the editor page. “I find the whole episode somewhat amusing.”
There was Gonzales, too. Never did he have an athletic moment anywhere close to that bright. The QB finished the game with 298 yards on 26-of-42 passing, and after the season … transferred to Cal State Fullerton to focus on baseball.
He never made it to the big leagues, but he does have a video of his big win over the Huskies. In fact, visual evidence is essential.
“People don’t believe me,” said Gonzales, now a high-school counselor in Diamond Bar, Calif. “But I’m very proud of that day.”
And then, of course, there’s Millen.
Millen, if you recall, didn’t want to talk about that game — then went on to talk about it for 30 minutes. The long-time-NFL veteran is unnecessarily hard on himself when hearkening back to that loss, but he just can’t seem to let it go.
He remembers being the last player to walk off the field. He remembers feeling despondent in the shower. He remembers the responsibility he placed on himself as the starting quarterback for the school he grew up 20 blocks away from.
“What would I say to this year’s team?” Millen said. “Don’t wait until after the game to realize how important it was to you. Don’t wait until you’re 52 years old to realize how much it mattered to you. If you don’t handle your business, the loss will hang around your neck like a millstone for the rest of time.”
For what it’s worth, Millen thinks these Huskies are far too talented for Oregon State to threaten.
Then again, everyone thought the same thing 31 years ago when the spread was virtually identical.
I’ll stop short of making a prediction. Logic is usually a good guide to follow. But history can’t be ignored.