Oregon’s football program has changed significantly over the past 20 years. Today, the Ducks are cemented among the nation’s top programs, and have started the season in the Top 10 in each of the past few years.
Entering the 1994 campaign, however, the Ducks had gone a combined 11-12 during the previous two seasons, and were not even in consideration for a Top-25 ranking. In fact, head coach Rich Brooks and his staff were just hoping to keep their jobs.
This week, we continue our tribute series to the 1994 Oregon Ducks. Part 1 covered the first three games of the season, which did not go so well.
The team’s 1-2 start in 1994 did not exactly help their sense of security, and things didn’t look good for the Ducks heading into October. Oregon’s starting quarterback, Danny O’Neil, was out with a finger infection, and a strong Pac-10 conference meant tough matchups against ranked USC, Washington State, Washington and the Arizona teams.
Despite these struggles, past and present are inevitably linked, so the program’s elite level of success since 2009 must have come from somewhere. And, as many Duck fans know, sometimes great late-season triumph can come after early-season heartbreak (think 2009 against Boise State and 2011 against LSU, both seasons ending in conference championships and Rose Bowl appearances).
The 1994 season may be the best example of this in school history. In fact, the disparity between that early-season trouble and late-season success was so great that the momentum swing created by that Oregon squad changed the trajectory of the program in a way that still affects us today.
After back-to-back losses to Hawaii and Utah, Brooks and his staff were at least able to take a breath after a 40-18 win over Iowa at home to move to 2-2. Still, the upcoming conference schedule was daunting. Without O’Neil and starting running back Ricky Whittle (also out with an injury) Brooks needed to find a way to get the team back on track.
On October 1, 1994, Oregon traveled south to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to take on a ranked USC Trojans team. Lefty backup quarterback Tony Graziani showed the same kind of poise demonstrated by Marcus Mariota today, and stepped up to lead his team.
Joining Graziani in the backfield was senior running back Dino Philyaw, replacing the injured Whittle. Both players dazzled in their respective breakout games, and led the Ducks to one of the program’s most improbable wins in recent memory.
Graziani and the Ducks marched down the field on their opening drive and nailed a field goal to take a 3-0 lead over the Trojans. Philyaw, who had 123 rushing yards on the day, also busted a huge 49-yard touchdown run before the end of the first quarter to put the Ducks up 10-0.
It wasn’t just the new starters stepping up, however; as veteran receiver Cristin McLemore hauled in a 19-yard touchdown pass from Graziani in the second quarter to give the Ducks a 16-7 lead.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the win was the defense. The Ducks’ Gang Green defense held the Trojans to only seven points on the day, even without All-American cornerback Herman O’Berry, yet another star player out with injury. Oregon put pressure on USC quarterback Rob Johnson all day, dialing up blitzes from the secondary as linebacker Paul Jensen and safety Isaac Walker both recorded sacks.
Not only did the Ducks leave Los Angeles with a huge conference win and shift the momentum of the season, they proved to have the kind of depth and poise usually demonstrated by college football’s elite teams.
Oregon recorded its only conference loss of the season the next week when they traveled to Pullman, Washington, falling 21-7 to a ranked Washington State Cougars team. That week, both quarterbacks were dinged up. The win over USC had given the Ducks confidence, however, and the team bounced back with a convincing win at home over Cal, once again allowing only seven points.
At 4-3, Oregon entered one of the most exciting times of any fall season for Duck fans — Husky week. The Washington-Oregon rivalry was (and still is) one of the greatest rivalries in college football. But this year was different. The Huskies were ranked No. 9 in the nation after beating Miami earlier in the season, and the Ducks were ready to show that they were the new power in the Pac-10.
With O’Neil back under center and Whittle healthy as well, Oregon was regaining its depth and experience. After falling behind 3-0 in the first quarter, Philyaw gave the Ducks a 7-3 lead with a touchdown scamper early in the 2nd quarter.
On the ensuing drive, cornerback Alex Molden beautifully stepped in front of an outside route and picked off a Damon Huard pass, putting the Ducks in great field position. Whittle punched in a touchdown run on an outside toss from three yards out and Oregon extended its lead to 14-3.
The Ducks held on to their lead for most of the game, but fell behind 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter. Brooks looked to his seasoned quarterback O’Neil to step up and he did not let him down, leading the Ducks on a 98-yard scoring drive capped off by a touchdown run by fullback Dwayne Jones to give his team a 24-20 lead with just under three minutes to play.
However, the Huskies had plenty of offensive weapons themselves, and the Ducks quickly found themselves deep in their own territory with their backs against the wall. The Ducks needed a play badly, and despite the USC win, a loss would put them right back into the middle of the road for the Pac-10. And given the nature of the rivalry and the heartbreak that would come with a close loss to another ranked team, the program as a whole was at stake.
Then, all of a sudden, a small freshman cornerback stepped up to prove the depth and talent of the Oregon team. With Huard dropping back to pass within the Ducks’ 10-yard line, Kenny Wheaton cut off a short out route and picked it off cleanly going full speed the other way.
As most Duck fans know, Wheaton did not stop. He took the ball 97 yards the other way to clinch the game, beat the Huskies and change the trajectory of Oregon football. Announcer Jerry Allen escorted Wheaton to the end zone with his famous exclamation, “Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score! Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score!”
The Pick, or The Play that Changed Oregon Football was arguably the single biggest moment in program history. Getting over the hump to beat a bitter rival (and a ranked one at that) gave the Ducks the confidence and national attention that is usually required to win a major conference in college football. It was a play that perfectly represented the future of the program. Wheaton swiped that pass and never looked back, just as the program’s success has not stopped. In fact, it has only improved.
It could easily be argued that Oregon football as we now know it started that day. However, that was not yet clear, as the Ducks still had a ways to go if they wanted to win the 1994 conference championship.
Top Photo by John Giustina