Up here, it is best left in the shadows. Down there, it is simply the best.
There is no debate that Kenny Wheaton’s 97-yard interception return for a touchdown is the greatest play, the most celebrated moment, in the history of Oregon football.
That the moment happened at the expense of the Washington Huskies, the Ducks’ most bitter rival, has added to the legend the past 20 years. That play remains the last highlight shown on the JumboTron before kickoff of every game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene. The crowd goes crazy every time, as if the moment had just happened for the first time.
This month’s 20-year anniversary of Wheaton’s interception — “The Pick” to Ducks fans — of UW’s Damon Huard has stirred memories and emotions from a play that turned a game, and a rivalry, on its head in a mere 16 seconds. The Ducks won the game, 31-20, propelling a run to their first Rose Bowl in 37 years.
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It is hardly a moment to be celebrated in Seattle, of course. Even so, Huard, 41, now the Huskies’ chief administrative officer and radio color analyst, is a good sport about it. Two decades later, he would love to have that throw back, but he can crack a joke that he might be the most popular quarterback to ever come through Oregon.
As the Huskies (5-1, 1-1 Pac-12) prepare for Saturday’s game against No. 9 Oregon (5-1, 2-1) in Eugene, Huard and others who were at Autzen Stadium on Oct. 22, 1994, reflect on the seminal play and the state of the UW-Oregon rivalry:
In 1990-91, Huard was an All-American quarterback at Puyallup High School with scholarship offers from many of the top programs, including UW, Miami, Notre Dame, USC — and Oregon.
Damon Huard, UW quarterback, 1991-95: Oregon hadn’t arrived as a program yet in ’91, but I made a trip there because I thought a lot of Rich Brooks and Mike Bellotti and I liked a lot of the quarterbacks they had produced there, especially Chris Miller and Bill Musgrave. They had an offense that was fairly cutting edge at the time. I remember going down there on a recruiting trip with Ernie Conwell and thinking, ‘Wow, we could we really fit in to this system here. It’s pretty cool where they’re going here.’ By no means in my mind, as a recruit in 1991, did I think of Oregon as the redheaded stepchild of the Northwest. I definitely thought of them as a program on the rise.
From 1974 to 1993, Washington was 17-3 against the Ducks, and the Huskies went to six Rose Bowls and won a share of the 1991 national championship during those two decades. Since 1994, Oregon is 15-4 against the Huskies and carries a 10-game winning streak in the series into this week’s game.
Napoleon Kaufman, UW running back, 1991-94: Oregon wasn’t on the radar for us at that time. We were beating them down pretty much every time we played them.
Eric Bjornson, UW quarterback/receiver, 1990-94: Back then, Oregon had worse facilities than my high school. Now they’re the gold standard. But for the five years I was there, it never felt like that was a game we had to worry about. That pendulum has completely swung in the other direction. I’m sure they laugh at us now.
In late September 1994, just four weeks before they made the trip to Eugene, Huard had led the Huskies to one of the most famous victories in program history — “The Whammy in Miami” — a 38-20 win that snapped No. 5 Miami’s NCAA-record 58-game home winning streak.
Huard: We came home (from Miami) with a lot of confidence.
At 5-1, UW entered Oregon week ranked No. 9 in The Associated Press poll. Oregon was 4-3 and unranked.
Nick Aliotti, Oregon assistant/defensive coordinator, 1988-1994; 1999-2013: We were always very concerned about the Huskies. They were always tough. They were our nemesis.
Bud Withers, Eugene Register-Guard columnist, 1970-87; Seattle Post Intelligencer/Seattle Times college football writer, 1987-present: I had picked Oregon to win that game on a flier more than anything. The Ducks had lost three games, as I remember, but they had gotten up on their feet well enough. I think part of it was just emotion of the rivalry — Oregon was so passionate about beating Washington. That probably hasn’t changed much.
On a bright fall afternoon, Oregon jumped out to a 14-3 lead over UW. In the second quarter, Huard started UW’s comeback with a 51-yard touchdown pass to Bjornson, who beat a redshirt freshman defensive back named Kenny Wheaton. The Huskies didn’t score again until the fourth quarter, when fullback Richard Thomas ran for a 10-yard TD to give UW a 20-17 lead with 7:44 remaining. Oregon answered with an 11-play, 98-yard touchdown drive with 2:40 left to take a 24-20 lead, the first fourth-quarter comeback engineered by UO senior quarterback Danny O’Neil. Huard and the Huskies got the ball back one last time at their own 33 with 2:33 left.
Ron Bellamy, Eugene Register-Guard columnist/sports editor, 1976-2011: I was in the stands at Autzen Stadium as a grad student when Mark Lee ran back the punt for UW in 1979. That was an absolute crusher for Oregon. The Ducks had the game won. The Ducks dominated that game, and everybody in that stadium figured the Ducks would find a way to get it done. Now here was Danny O’Neil’s redemption about to be snuffed away by this Husky comeback. You could see it coming.
Bjornson: On the last drive I was definitely thinking, “We’ve got this in the bag. It shouldn’t even be this close to begin with. Let’s make things right on this drive and let’s get out of here and go home.” I think everybody felt that way.
Huard connected with Bjornson for gains of 7 and 23 yards. On fourth-and-10, Huard again found Bjornson, who beat two defenders for a 14-yard reception to the Oregon 31 with 1:49 left.
Aliotti: That was like a dagger in the heart.
Huard: We were definitely marching the ball down the field.
On third down, Huard scrambled 11 yards to the 20, then hit his All-American tight end, Mark Bruener, for a 12-yard gain to the Oregon 8.
Mark Bruener, UW tight end, 1991-94: It was one of those things where, because we were accustomed to doing things our way — play a physical game with a great line and great running game — the mindset was, “We’re down here in the red zone, we’re going to score and finish this drive,” because that’s what we did.
After a UW timeout, Huard lined up under center from the right hash at the 8-yard line, with Kaufman lined up 5 yards behind him to the left. Kaufman, considered a Heisman Trophy front-runner at the time, didn’t have a single carry on the final drive.
Aliotti: I thought for sure they were going to give it to Napoleon. We ran an all-out run blitz, “zero” coverage, no free safety, man-to-man on the outside.
Kaufman: I was the type of guy that, you just run the play that’s called. But I must say, I was surprised that I did not get the ball there.
Bjornson was lined up far to the left and UW receiver Dave Janoski in the slot. Huard took the snap, took a five-step drop and fired to his left, where Janoski was running a quick “out” pattern. It’s the route Wheaton had been anticipating.
Bjornson: In hindsight, a 5-yard out to a 5-9 receiver might not have been the best play call.
Aliotti: Kenny played the odds. If they ran an in route it probably would’ve been a touchdown. He ran the out and the rest is history.
Wheaton caught the pass at the 3 as Janoski fell to the turf. Wheaton raced up the right sideline and around Huard and Bruener for a 97-yard touchdown with 49 seconds left.
Huard: I wish I would’ve made the tackle. I think I was more in shock.
Aliotti: I still think about how that play changed a lot of our lives and our careers.
Huard: Do I hate that interception? Yeah. Do I wish I never threw it? Hell yeah. But I’m a big boy. You play the position of quarterback, you’re going to have interceptions that cost you the game. That’s the nature of the beast. But to sit here and say what happened in that ’94 game — to call that the play that changed our schools’ fortunes? I don’t know if any one play does that. Is that really the play that made all these recruits want to go to Oregon all these years later? I don’t know.
Kaufman: I love Damon. He’s my teammate forever. I love him.
Kenny Wheaton, UO defensive back, 1993-96 (who didn’t comment to The Seattle Times, but told The Register-Guard in Eugene): At the time I was joyful and excited, but I didn’t know the play would be what it is today. I didn’t understand the rivalry. I just wondered if my mom saw it on TV.
Huard: It’s brought up every year by my Duck friends. They all love me. I’m still waiting for the statue to be built down there. Let’s go, guys.
The Huskies, serving the second year of a two-year bowl ban, went 2-2 over the final month of the 1994 season, finishing the year with a 7-4 record, 4-4 in conference. At Husky Stadium the next year, Huard’s senior season, the Huskies trailed Oregon 24-0 at halftime before a furious second-half comeback attempt. The comeback fell short when John Wales missed a 36-yard field goal with 1:07 left, and the Ducks won 24-22.
Huard: The game that kills me against Oregon was my senior year when we had a chance to win it at the end. The thing that I don’t understand is, my brother (Brock) and Corey Dillon and those guys went down there and crushed them in ’96. Nobody ever talks about that game.
To celebrate the 20-year anniversary, the Ducks this Saturday will wear Kelly green and yellow throwback uniforms from 1994, and Wheaton will serve as the grand marshal for Oregon’s homecoming parade.
Bjornson: I played for the Cowboys with Kenny Wheaton. You won’t find a better guy. He never even brought it up. He could’ve let me have it so many times. It’s the most famous play in the history of Oregon football, but whenever anyone else would bring it up he would just shake it off like no big deal.
A new chapter in the rivalry begins this week when Chris Petersen, a former Oregon assistant, makes his debut at Autzen as the Huskies’ head coach. The past couple years, the Huskies have felt as if they’ve inched closer to ending the losing streak to the Ducks, and there’s hope that UW’s re-energized defense just might have the talent to finally slow down the Oregon offense this time.
Kaufman: I had the privilege of meeting Coach Pete and the staff. I think what they’re doing is awesome. They’ve come in and implemented their system and created expectations, and if the kids don’t meet those expectations, then you have to do what you have to do. That’s perfect. I like how he’s tightened up the reins around there.
Bruener: It’s not fair to say the gap is closing or shrinking in any way because we haven’t won in 10 years. I’m not trying to be negative; I’m just being realistic. The growth I’ve seen since the all-time low in 2008 has been immense. However, I’m accustomed to the program being at that level we had with Damon and Lawyer (Milloy) and Napoleon and Lincoln (Kennedy) and (Steve) Emtman and (Dave) Hoffmann and Mario (Bailey) and all those guys. Some people say, “Oh, you’re living in past.” Well, you need to learn from the past, and those types of teams we had were flat-out dominant. We are getting back to a very good level, but to get to that dominant level we still have a ways to go.
Aliotti: Are they closing the gap? Yes. I think Chris Petersen is a fantastic coach and will turn that thing around in time. Next year’s game up there will be a donnybrook, but right now Oregon’s just too good.
Bjornson: The hope is we get back to where we were. It would be acceptable to me if it even stepped back to be a competitive rivalry again.
Bruener: Maybe this is the year. Maybe it’s our turn to have that one defining play to revive us.