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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

November 2, 2011 at 8:11 PM

What if Kenny Wheaton doesn’t make that interception?

Thought that would get your attention . . .

Got to thinking, what if Oregon hadn’t beaten Washington in 1994, thanks to Kenny Wheaton’s program-turning interception? It’s now 17 years later, and Oregon comes to Husky Stadium Saturday night. If, somehow, we could have glimpsed what we know today back on that bright, late-October day in Eugene, I don’t think anybody would have believed it — whether your persuasion is lemon-and-green or purple-and-gold.

First, a thought on that unforgettable play. As you probably remember, Oregon led 24-20 and Washington had driven downfield for what would be the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute. (To set the stage, the Ducks entered the game at only 4-3, already with a conference loss to WSU’s Palouse Posse. The Huskies were 5-1 and had a five-game win streak, but were in the second year of a two-year bowl sanction.)

For the life of me, I never understood the play. From the right hash, Damon Huard threw a deep out toward 5-9 Dave Janoski on the left side. Wheaton jumped the route and serpentined down the right side 97 yards. Oregon won, 31-20, and the pick has only been shown 20 gazillion times on Oregon’s video board. It’s the defining moment of the program.

The Huskies had Napoleon Kaufman in the backfield, although I recall some Husky rationalizations that he had been bothered somewhat by a problem foot. Still, memory says he had carried on that final drive. They also had tight end Mark Bruener, who was a stud, and they had a timeout left at the Oregon 8-yard line. I always thought a short-side run by Kaufman made sense, or a throw to Bruener.

So let’s daydream a little. This is going to include a bit of literary license, but bear with me.

If, say, Washington completes that drive and wins the game, Oregon falls to 4-4, and if everything else had remained the same, Oregon would have finished in a three-way knot for the league title. (Oregon ended the conference season at 7-1, while Arizona and USC were 6-2 each.) The Ducks, however beat both, so they would have nabbed the Rose Bowl berth anyway.
Ah, but I’m going to make the leap and say it would have been very difficult for them to win the following week against Arizona, when Oregon muscled out a 10-9 victory in Eugene. I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all to think the Ducks don’t win that game if they hadn’t had the boost of just beating Washington. Or, to put it another way, they weren’t fighting the hangover of a tough, all-in loss to the Huskies. Remember, this wasn’t a conference power having a momentary blip if it lost to Washington; Oregon would have been .500 after eight games, and in fact, an early 1-2 start had stirred a lot of dissent against UO coach Rich Brooks.
So it’s not a stretch to think Oregon would have been 4-5. Even if you concede the three additional victories it actually recorded to nail down the Rose Bowl berth, the Ducks would have been only 7-5. That means a minor bowl.
Legend has it that it was after the 1995 season, when Oregon went to the Cotton Bowl (and lost to Rick Neuheisel’s Colorado team) that Phil Knight, the Nike czar, began to ask what the Ducks needed to become a big-time program annually. Thus was born the Moshofsky Center, the indoor practice facility.
A few years later, Bill Moos, the athletic director, was successfully pushing an expansion of Autzen Stadium, which was funded heavily by Knight. The good times kept coming (mostly, anyway), and with Knight aboard in earnest, the Oregon facilities got more and more state-of-the-art. The marketing got more splashy and coach Mike Bellotti turned to the spread-option offense, and then Chip Kelly made it even better. And oh yeah, somewhere in there came the revolutionary uniforms.
It seems to me to be the classic, brick-by-brick process, one thing leading to another. You know, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over the lantern and starting the Chicago fire.
When I worked in Eugene back into the late ’80s, nobody really ever mentioned Phil Knight as a possible godfather to the program. The story I’ve been told since then is, he was so busy shepherding his company through challenging times, he wasn’t inclined to get involved much with Oregon football.
Maybe it was time for Knight to come through regardless, given Nike’s colossal impact by the mid-’90s, and surely, Moos’ salesmanship can’t be minimized. But it’s worth asking: How much hoopla would there have been around Oregon football without the Rose Bowl appearance of ’94, and all the festivity, bonhomie and good times that surround an event like that, especially when it hadn’t happened in decades?
Would the Cotton Bowl appearance by itself have been enough to stoke Knight? We’ll never know, but Oregon’s rise from also-ran to collegiate power is a stunning story. And maybe it never would have happened without The Pick.



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