It is long revered as the greatest play in Oregon football history. And it only took was 16 seconds.
Kenny Wheaton’s game-winning 97-yard interception return for a touchdown against hated-rival Washington was the starting point in the Ducks’ return to national prominence.
It was 1994, Oregon was clinging to a 24-20 lead. But Washington — led by Heisman front runner running back Napoleon Kauffman and quarterback Damon Huard — was driving the length of the field for the game-winning score.
With the ball on Oregon’s eight-yard line and 1:05 remaining in the game, Huard took a five-step drop and fired the ball to his left, expecting to hit receiver Dave Janowski on a five-yard out.
But Wheaton jumped in front of Janowski, snatching the ball out of the air. With Janowski now on the ground and only 97 yards stood between him and immortality, Wheaton raced untouched to the endzone, setting off a scream so loud in Autzen that it still reverberates in the seats today.
That play clinched the Ducks’ 31-20 victory over the Huskies, eventually propelling Oregon to its first Rose Bowl in 37 years. Oregon football announcer Jerry Allen yelling “Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score… Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score” was such a turning point in Oregon history that the play — and Allen’s voice — are replayed prior to every football game in Autzen stadium.
Part of what made the play so memorable was that it came against Washington, Oregon’s hated and bitter rival to the north. If Wheaton had picked off Arizona or another Pac-12 team, the play would’ve merely been great. But because it was against the Huskies, “Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score” will live infamously in Oregon history.
The question has to be asked though, why did Oregon and Washington hate one another prior to the game?
The Ducks and Huskies series began in 1900 when Oregon won 43-0. As the years went on, both teams played one another with not much of a rivalry taking place.
That all changed in 1948 when the Pac-12 was known as the Pacific Coast Conference. That season, Oregon and Cal tied for the conference championship, so a vote was used to determine which school would earn the Rose Bowl bid. It was assumed that the California schools would vote for Cal and the Northwest schools would back Oregon. Washington had other ideas, not only choosing to support Cal but convincing Montana to do the same. The Ducks lost out on the Rose Bowl and the first match was lit that sparked the rivalry today.
In 1962, another match was lit when Washington fans rushed the field on the final play of the game. They eventually tackled Oregon wide receiver Larry Hill as he was attempting to make the game-winning catch, resulting in a tie, causing then-Oregon head coach Len Casanova to say, “I don’t know if it made any difference, but you can’t run a very good pattern with 1,800 kids on the field.”
Ten years later after the Ducks destroyed Washington 58-0, they were accused of running up the score and ticking off then-Washington head coach Jim Owens. Owens, vowing to score at least 59 points on the Ducks the following season, led Washington to a 66-0 victory in which he kept his starters in for nearly the entire game.
Years later and the rivalry has gradually picked up steam.
From Wheaton’s pick to Washington's fans dancing on Oregon’s “O” at midfield in 2002, the hatred of the rivalry has only fueled series in a way very few others can match.
Oregon’s “decade of dominance” (2004-15) ended in 2016 when the Huskies got their revenge with a 70-21 victory. The game was marred in controversy when current-Washington quarterback Jake Browning ran for his first touchdown, turning around and wagging his finger at an Oregon linebacker as he crossed the goal line. While Browning earned a 15-yard penalty for “the wag,” he earned major respect in Washington’s locker room, something that has carried over to the Huskies outscoring the Ducks 108-24 the past two years.
This year’s rendition of the rivalry promises fireworks as both teams are nationally ranked for the first time since 2013. Oregon is looking for the big win that’s going to change its current course of action while Washington is still in the running for a College Football Playoff spot. One will have to give but you can bet, Saturday’s showdown is just another stepping stone in the heated rivalry.