Much of the narrative for Oregon fans this season has centered on the uncertainty many have felt about the possible outcomes from week-to-week. In recent years, the Ducks had always been a near-certainty to defeat any team it was clearly better than; only in the last year or so has that certainty begun to shift. Prior to that return to uncertainty, there was another mentality shift that was occurring: The loss of a rivalry with Washington.
While most Oregon fans always sustained their hatred for the Huskies during the success of recent years, the rivalry had lost much of the fire that had made it so significant. The focus on an annual defeat of a bitter rival took a backseat to an annual focus on winning a national championship. Every loss, regardless of opponent, was just as devastating as a rivalry loss because of the goals and dreams for the season. Energy normally reserved for traditional rivals like Washington and Oregon State was instead directed at schools with little historical enmity in their series, like Stanford, or with schools they had never even played, like Alabama.
Coupled this with the recent Oregon philosophy of the “faceless opponent” and the admission of many of those in this rivalry that they have friends on the other sideline, and it could make someone wonder if the rivalry was fading away.
As constants disappear in our lives, we have a tendency to put a greater emphasis on the remaining constants available to us. While the lack of certainty in those weekly outcomes may be less desirable for fans, its silver lining has led to a greater emphasis being put on the significance of the constants (like beating Washington) and the importance of preserving those constants to avoid further chaos. That emphasis on the rivalry itself was renewed this week, and didn’t even require a loss to rekindle it.
Instead, it was the reminders of the past success that brought that reinvigorated enthusiasm, fueled by the celebration of so many beloved figures responsible for Oregon’s ascent in their return to Autzen Stadium for Homecoming Weekend. Fans saw reminders everywhere inside the stadium on Saturday. There was the honoring of the 1989 Independence Bowl team, the first Oregon team to play in a bowl game in 26 years. There were the 1994 throwback uniforms worn by the 2014 iteration of the team for Saturday’s game.
Of course, the players weren’t the only ones wearing 1994 throwbacks Saturday, as many fans were wearing the same. Those replica throwbacks from that season, emblazoned with the name of the man responsible for the most iconic play in school history, were visible throughout the stands and lots on Saturday. Of course, the man responsible for that play was Kenny Wheaton, who not only changed the direction of the Oregon program with a single play, but became a legend in the process.
It can be easy for those who are detached from the history of the rivalry to dismiss its relevancy. Not only has Washington lost eleven straight to the Ducks, none of them has been closer than 17 points. To turn a phrase former Husky defensive lineman D’Marco Farr once used to describe the Oregon-Washington dynamic by saying, “We didn’t have a rivalry, it was more like the hammer and the nail.”
While Farr was describing the former Husky superiority in the rivalry, that description still accurately describes the rivalry now, only with the roles reversed. Oregon now owns not only the longest winning streak in the series, but the longest winning streak the Ducks have ever had against a single opponent in the poll era. That the roles of the two schools completely reversed themselves in the last twenty years is not just fun for Oregon fans to remember, it is also important.
This is why it is always disappointing whenever the DuckVision doesn’t punctuate with “The Pick” just before the team runs on the field. While I understand that there might be interest from some in distancing the program from that moment to focus on more recent accomplishments and successes, remembering how Oregon got here, and how much weight moments like “The Pick” had in shaping the program, matter as well.
Kenny Wheaton’s interception was the critical play in Oregon’s 31-20 win in that 1994 game. In the twenty meetings with the Huskies prior to 1994, the Ducks had won three. While it took an entire team effort that day, “The Pick” showed how the fortunes of a program can swing on a single play. While that has always been interpreted as what a program can build on, it is also important to remember that is true for other programs as well. Fortunes can change for teams on a single play, and it can just as easily happen to one’s bitter rival as happens for you.
That’s why it was so incredible to see all the reminders of the history and accomplishments that have built the program to where it currently exists during Saturday’s game. It was amazing to see Kenny Wheaton ride across the field to start the game Saturday, recreating the famous path of his pick-six touchdown, and to continue to relive that moment instead of letting it fade into the past.
Yet for all the changes fans have witnessed in recent years, it is the thing that hasn’t changed in more than a decade that was the best part of Saturday. Coaches change, players change, and even buildings change for the Ducks, but for the past eleven years, one thing stays the same: The Oregon Ducks will play the Washington Huskies, and they will win by at least 17 points. Changes may go on all around the Ducks, but beating the Huskies is one thing they can always count on.
Top photo by Craig Strobeck.