Exactly 15 years ago to date, Oregon traveled to Seattle Washington for a date with destiny. The sixth-ranked Huskies were undefeated in conference play; their lone loss coming at the hands of the #1 ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers. Incidentally, Washington held the longest conference home winning streak, and Oregon was the last conference team to defeat Washington on Husky Turf during the previous matchup at Husky Stadium in 1995. It was Oregon’s opportunity to pull it’s first back-to-back victories at Husky Stadium since 1964 & 1968. The year prior, Washington beat Oregon at Autzen Stadium 33-14, and Oregon wanted to show they were not to be overlooked. The Ducks were coming off a bye week and had ample time to prepare for the be-hated Huskies.
Washington was coming off a costly win, in which two of their key offensive starters were injured. Washington was without All-Pac-10 QB Brock Huard, and All-American Rashaan Shehee. Regardless, Oregon was a 22-point underdog entering the contest. ESPN Gameday Analyst Lee Corso, who was not in the Duck-friendly place he stands today, proclaimed aggressively, ” I don’t care about injuries to Huard and Shehee: Washington has enough weapons in other key players to trample all over Oregon!!!!” (In hindsight: maybe Corso should have worn the Duck head instead?)
Akili Smth was Oregon’s starting quarterback. Two weeks prior, Smith had come off the bench in relief of successful competitor QB Jason Maas to lead Oregon to a comeback victory over USC. Smith’s heroics earned him the starting spot against the #6 team in the nation. After each team came up empty on their first possession, Smith and company took the football at their own 30. Oregon pushed the ball to midfield, with RB Saladin McCullough leading the charge. On third down, Smith picked up where he left off against USC as he calmly escaped pressure and found his H-Back TE AJ Jelks (an unsung hero of the day) in Washington territory for the third-down conversion. Only two plays later, Smith evaded blitzing defenders before tucking the ball and running for a first down. A dazzling and obstacle-course like run for McCullough set up Oregon inside the five yard-line. On third and goal from the five, Smith, under heavy pressure from the Husky front seven, used his strength to shake off a defender before spinning and throwing the ball. Wide open H-Back AJ Jelks was in the back of the end zone, and made an outstanding catch. The Ducks had the first lead of the ballgame. 7-0, Oregon (only 6:41 in the first quarter.)
On the ensuing drive, Oregon’s defense held strong, despite their ranking at the bottom of the Pac-10, holding Washington’s True Freshman QB Marques Tuiasosopo in check and forcing Washington to punt. A short punt meant Oregon would take over with great field position.
Oregon made the most of it and Smith came out firing on all cylinders. For the second consecutive drive, Smith led Oregon down field while escaping pressure. Smith found receiver Ray Brust at the Washington 30 to keep the momentum in Oregon’s favor. McCullough busted up the middle to get Oregon into the red zone on the next play. Smith then threw a quick screen pass to Pat Johnson in motion, who made the catch in stride and almost broke free before being brought down inside the five. On the next play, McCullough took the handoff and crossed the goal line to push the deficit to two touchdowns. 14-0, Oregon (3:53 in the first quarter.)
With the momentum clearly in Oregon’s favor, coach Mike Bellotti followed their second straight score with an onside kick. Washington was taken by surprise, and Oregon nearly made the recovery. However, Oregon’s defense picked up where they left off, holding Tuiasosopo and company in check. From their own 45, Washington scratched their way to the Oregon 45 before Tuiasopsopo targeted a wide open Jerome Pathon who’d beat a stumbling Rashad Bauman; but Pathon could not hold on and Oregon took over. With that, the first quarter would end with Oregon in control. The Ducks had struggled all season in the first quarter, being outscored 80-45 in all first quarters combined; yet Oregon proved the bigger of the teams on the day as they ended the opening quarter in full control. 14-0, Oregon.
Early in the second quarter, Oregon would punt, but soon get the ball back as the Oregon defense would cause a fumble to gain another great field position start at midfield. Akili Smith was pressured again, but eluded two sepearte tacklers to heave a bomb downfield. Only pass interference prevented a catch, but the interference along with a late hit on Smith gave Oregon the first down in scoring range to aide them with another score. An additional personal foul on Washington moved the ball into the red zone. Emotions were flying high as the rivalry was at its peak in the mid-90’s, which was showing on the field. On fourth and 1 from the 10, Bellotti opted to go for the field goal. Following the struggles of kicker Josh Smith the previous game against USC, the well-known Josh Frankel got his first start/shot at a successful carreer at Oregon. Frankel’s first-ever NCAA Field Goal attempt split the uprights, and suddenly the Ducks had a surprising three-score lead on the #6 team in the nation. 17-0, Oregon.
On Washington’s ensuing drive, Tuiasosopo found rhythm. Washington began to drive the field, and Tuiasosopo made two key plays with his legs on third down to extend the drive. Five minutes later, Oregon held Washington to a fourth down, and would force a field goal for Kicker Nick Lentz’s career best. Lentz would meet that challenge and put Washington on the board for their first points. 17-3, Oregon.
Not about to lose momentum, Akili Smith and company picked up the tempo. On the first play, Smith is hit as he throws, but the pass is complete to Pat Johnson at midfield for a first down. Soon after, Oregon faced another third down, and Smith was again up to the challenge. Smith calmly hit Blake Spence at the UW 40, who eluded several Huskies for ten yards after contact down to the 30. Two McCullough runs got Oregon near the 20. On McCullough’s third run, he broke free and into the secondary, appearing to be on his way for the score before barely being stopped inside the five for the second time. McCullough was called upon to finish the job on first and goal, but was pushed backwards. On the next play Smith rolled to his right, eluded additional tacklers, and found a wide open Spence in the right corner of the end zone for Oregon’s third touchdown of the day. Oregon had a commanding lead. 24-3, Oregon.
On UW’s final drive of the first half, Tuiasosopo and company marched downfield into Oregon territory. The Huskies attempted to close the gap before half-time by putting together a drive and UW pushed to the Oregon 20. Once again, solid defense by Oregon forced UW to settle for a field goal. Going into halftime, the 22-point underdog Ducks held an amazing and unexpected 19-point lead. 24-6, Oregon.
In the second half, the over-capacity crowd of 73,775 began to see the Huskies they had seen all year. The Huskies became ferocious dawgs in the second half, ready to mount a comeback. Trailing 24-6, UW took the ball and went to work as Marques Tuiasosopo eluded a sack in the end zone to get UW out of the shadow of its own goal posts. Several plays later, Tuiasosopo ran the option, broke loose, and got a touchdown. The two point conversion was successful, to cut the deficit to 10 points. 24-14, Oregon.
The hot Oregon offense was unable to answer. Solid defense by UW stalled a drive, and UW took over on a punt. Tuiasosopo immediately connected with All-Pac-10 UW Receiver Jerome Pathon into Oregon territory. Oregon stalled UW in the red zone, but a great pass breakup was nullified by a questionable pass-interference call on Oregon CB Eric Edwards to give UW a first down inside the five. A few plays later Tuiasosopo fumbled the ball into the Oregon endzone; where immediately UO Safety Jaiya Figueras scooped up the ball. Oregon had recovered for the touchback, but the UW Center snatched the ball from Figuearas and possession was called for the Huskies. Instant replay showed Figueras recover the ball on the ground. However, there was no instant replay in NCAA at the time, and UW was granted the recovery for the touchdown. Just like that, Washington was right back in the game, as Oregon watched a 24-6 cushion turn into a narrow three-point lead. 24-21, Oregon.
Washington’s offense had been explosive in the third quarter all season; which did not change as the Huskies came roaring back. Oregon had no answer. Contrary to the first two quarters, the UW defense held the Oregon offense in check. Smith’s first half heroics were deflected in the third quarter as UW would not allow him to escape or lead UO to a single a first down in the third quarter.
In 1995, UW came back in the second half; yet the second half explosion fell just short of taking the lead. This time, they did pull ahead. Early in the fourth quarter, Tuiasosopo rallied the troops downfield, converting two fourth downs. With eight minutes remaining, Tuiasosopo threw a long bomb towards the end zone. It was “4-on-4” as UW #4 JaWarren Hooker was up against Oregon CB #4 Eric Edwards. All-Star speedster receiver JaWarren Hooker beat Edwards downfield and made a remarkable sliding catch in the end zone to give Washington its first lead of the ballgame. [Note: In addition, the catch by Hooker was the best athletic play of the day, and would be hard to top.] 28-24, Washington; eight minutes remaining in the game. It seemed impossible to the naysayers, as Washington had all the momentum and the home field advantageous noisy 12th man crowd, shaking the stadium at maximum decibels.
Smith and the Oregon offense were fired up despite the adversity, ready to prove Oregon was a worthy opponent. They began their drive at their own 27. Smith’s first pass was in traffic, but bobbled and caught by the gifted Senior Tight End Blake Spence for the momentum swing and all-important first down at midfield. A one-handed catch by reserve Tailback Kevin Parker gave Oregon another first down in Washington territory at the 40. On the next down series, Smith again would escape pressure to avoid a sack, but fall short of the first down. An option keeper by Smith then gave Oregon another first down. The optimism waned when Smith was caught in the backfield for a loss of ten on a shoe-string tackle. Smith would have to pull of something amazing on 3rd and 16. Smith’s hit receiver Donald Haynes in stride down field, who reeled in a remarkable stumbling catch at the Washington 20 to get the 1st.
From there, Oregon only went backwards. On 3rd and 20, the Ducks would need a miracle – one similar to Kenny Wheaton’s interception three years prior, big enough to go down in Oregon History as simply, “The Pick.”
Oregon Senior Wide Receiver Patrick Johnson was up to that daunting task. Johnson had worked hard in his four years’ time at Oregon; improving his speed on the track team and football abilities tremendously after only one year of high school football. Johnson sprinted downfield and to the end zone. Smith heaved a pass in Johnson’s direction. The pressure on Smith caused a slight overthrow and Johnson was well covered all the way by his defender. Johnson took a heaving dive, and successfully reeled in what was arguably the greatest touchdown catch in Oregon Football History. Oregon had reclaimed the lead in style!
The defense forced a fourth down on the ensuing drive on two huge hits. Oregon’s Peter Sirmon led the Pac-10 in tackles for a reason, and proved his worthiness by being there to meet Tuiasosopo then and there to take over on downs and run out the clock. The celebration was on as the Ducks had pulled off a miracle upset of the nation’s #6 team. For the first time since the 1960’s, the Ducks won back-to-back appearances at Husky Stadium; knocking Washington out of its top spot in the Pac-10 and spoiling their Rose Bowl hopes. In the process, Oregon kept its bowl hopes alive and was well on track to its fourth consecutive winning season. Peter Sirmon’s nine tackles, interception and fumble recovery earned him Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Week; one of many times Sirmon would be receive the honor. Akili Smith’s heroics earned him Pac-10 Offensive Player of the week for the first time. Oregon fans could see the abilities of the nation’s top junior college QB they had longed to see in their new outright starter; as Smith had progressed into a true NCAA elite QB. The confidence only aided the Ducks, as they would end their mid-season slump and finish the season strong. FINAL SCORE: Oregon 31, Washington 28.
[Note: Johnson’s catch certainly topped the wonder of Hooker’s athletic catch earlier in the game for Washington, and is now known simply as “The Catch.”]