Kenny Wheaton’s interception return for a touchdown would have been a great play no matter who Oregon was facing that afternoon in Autzen Stadium. But it was Oregon’s opponent and the game situation that made it so iconic that it has been replayed at every Duck football home game for almost 30 years. So iconic that many Duck fans can recite Jerry Allen’s radio call of the play by heart.
With Oregon leading its most-hated rival 24 – 20 in the 4th quarter, Washington had driven almost the length of the field, setting up on Oregon’s 9-yard-line. It wouldn’t be surprising if most in the stadium that day thought Washington would score. So many times, Duck fans had to watch as the Huskies dominated games or stole a late victory just like that. As Oregon fans either held their breath or screamed, Washington quarterback Damon Huard went back to throw the ball….
While Oregon and the University of Washington have had a rivalry for many, many decades, in some ways it was this play that marked a turning point. Not only did Oregon go on to win the Pac-10 Conference Championship that year and play in their first Rose Bowl game since 1958, but after that season the Ducks became the dominant team in the rivalry series. The major effort to improve Oregon’s football program – along with other sports programs at the University – can be directly traced to this game and this season. While there were still plenty of hurdles to overcome, it became possible to imagine Oregon as a national football contender.
Since Kenny Wheaton put an exclamation point on “the most improbable finish to the football game” Oregon has won 19 of the 25 matchups on the gridiron between the schools – a 76 percent “win” rate that would count as “championship caliber” on the Hyth scale – and Washington forfeited one game (Covid). This period includes an epic 12-game winning streak for the Ducks between 2004 and 2015, the longest winning streak for either team in the 121-year rivalry. Over that span, Oregon averaged over 42 points per game while holding Washington under 20.
Oregon has also won the last 4 games – 2 of them in Seattle, 1 in Eugene and one by forfeit – despite the turmoil of Covid and coaching changes in both programs. This year’s game takes on extra meaning, if such a thing is possible, as Oregon is ranked #6 and knocking on the door of the College Football Playoffs and Washington snuck back into the Top 25 with a last-second win against Oregon State. It’s just the 8th time both teams will be ranked for this game, although Oregon has been ranked in 13 of its last 15 wins in the series. The Ducks opened as an 11.5 point favorite.
Why this Rivalry?
Across the country there are intense rivalries between college football teams. Games like Ohio State-Michigan and Texas-Oklahoma take on a national character and join the more typical in-State rivalries between schools located close to each other such as UCLA-USC or Cal-Stanford. Oregon has the best of both of these kinds of rivalries. There’s no dispute about the strong in-state rivalry with Oregon State, located just 40 miles from Eugene. The Beavers have struggled in recent decades becoming less of a threat to actually win their rivalry game with Oregon, while many unique factors have strengthened the importance of Husky Hate Week for Duck fans.
Oregon and Washington already had a strong on-field rivalry when circumstance took it to the next level. In 1948, Oregon and Cal both went undefeated in the then-Pacific Coast Conference. Cal had won all its games, and Oregon had one more Conference victory and just one non-Conference blemish, a road loss to that season’s national champion Michigan. When the Conference decided that Conference member schools would vote which school would play in the Rose Bowl, Washington not only voted for Cal, but also persuaded then-Conference member Montana to support Cal’s bid, a dick move if ever there was one. Ultimately, the PCC allowed Oregon to play in the Cotton Bowl, and unfortunately, both Cal and Oregon lost their respective bowl games. Duck fans have long memories for slights of this nature, even slights they weren’t alive to experience. No one would blame Duck fans if their delight in Montana’s 13 – 7 victory over the Huskies in Seattle last year was greater even than Grizzley fans. Karma can take a while, but it gets you eventually. Any academically prowessed football fan knows that.
Saturday’s game brings together two college football programs that don’t like each other. The list of reasons is long, but it contains the kinds of things that make college football the national treasure it has become. Last second wins. Gigantic upsets. Dancing on logos. Plenty of jawboning between Coaches, players and fans. Bragging rights and bitter tears. Rivalries like this one are the beating heart of college football and are set against the big-money “business” focus of so much of the college football world. On Saturday, Duck fans get to be part of what makes college football great.
What is your top Oregon-Washington football memory? Tell us in the comments!