Twenty years later, announcer Jerry Allen’s classic call of The Pick against Washington is played at every Oregon game at Autzen Stadium. It remains a very big deal among football fans in the Pacific Northwest, where the rivalry between the Ducks and the Huskies runs deep.
Even Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was still in diapers when that game was played, is well aware of what that interception has come to mean for the Ducks.
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”That play signified a huge turnaround for this program,” he said. ”It’s very significant for us.”
Wheaton was a freshman in 1994. Oregon, with a five-game losing streak to Washington, was ahead late in the game but the Huskies were driving toward the goal line.
That’s when Wheaton intercepted Damon Huard and ran back 97 yards for a touchdown, prompting Allen’s celebrated call.
The 31-20 victory helped send the Ducks to their first Rose Bowl in 37 years. But many point to that play as the first step in Oregon’s rise to national prominence. The Ducks have gone on to appear in 17 bowl games over the next 19 years.
”If you’re here, you’ve probably seen the play over and over,” current Ducks cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu said. ”I’ve seen the play a lot. It was a great play by a great cornerback. He was able to change the outcome of the game and that’s what you’re trying to do every time you step out on the field.”
The Ducks are honoring the 20th anniversary of The Pick on Saturday when No. 9 Oregon (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) hosts the Huskies (5-1, 1-1) wearing bright green throwback uniforms recalling the jersey Wheaton wore in 1994.
”Kenny Wheaton’s actually going to play on Saturday, too. A lot of people don’t know that,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich joked.
The Pick also solidified the passionate rivalry with the Huskies.
It is said that the antagonism between the two teams dates back to 1948 when legend has it that Washington conspired to help California – instead of Oregon – into the Rose Bowl. Because both the Ducks and the Golden Bears went undefeated, the tie-breaker was by vote of the members of the Pacific Coast Conference. The Huskies allegedly convinced Montana to vote for Cal.
After The Pick things got intense. The next year, Mike Bellotti’s first as coach, the No. 19 Ducks beat the No. 15 Huskies 24-22. John Wales’ field goal attempt for the Huskies with just over a minute left sailed wide right in Seattle.
Washington did its part to raise the ire of Oregon fans in 2002 when the Huskies routed the Ducks 42-14 at Autzen then danced for nearly an hour afterward on the ”O” at the 50-yard line.
In recent years, however, the games have been lopsided toward the Ducks. Oregon has a 10-game winning streak in the series, averaging a 25.4-point margin of victory.
Overall, Washington still owns a 58-43-5 advantage in the series that goes back 113 years.
Chris Petersen, who took over as Washington’s head coach this season after Steve Sarkisian went to USC, was an assistant coach at Oregon from 1995-2000, so he’s very familiar with the acrimony between the two teams.
Because of it, he has no doubt his players will be up for the game. The trick, he said, is not getting too wrapped up in the rivalry aspect.
”I think this game needs to be played with emotion and if we’re ever lacking that, that’s not good. But there’s a flip side, a balance there: If you’ve got too much of it, you’re not going to play your best either. So we need to have the correct emotion,” Petersen said. ”But I think that’s what makes college football so fun, the different rivalries around the conferences and everybody knowing each other and the fans and all that. That’s the pageantry, and one of the things that probably separates pro ball from college ball.”