In the 2001 season, the Oregon Ducks were looking to build upon the steady success they had grown accustomed to in recent years. Coming off of a 10-2 season in 2000, the only losses coming at the hands of Wisconsin and Oregon State in the Civil War game that ultimately cost the Ducks an outright conference championship, the Ducks were looking for even better things the next year. The three-way-tie in 2000 had deadlocked Oregon, Washington, and OSU in a shared conference championship.
Despite losing in convincing fashion to the Ducks, Washington wound up with the Pac-10 conference Rose Bowl bid, while OSU got a chance to play a terrible Notre Dame team in the Fiesta Bowl. Oregon was relegated to the 3rd selection out of the conference by the Holiday Bowl, set to face off against Big-12 powerhouse Texas. But Oregon that year was building some unprecedented momentum in Eugene, and could not be stopped even by Bevo and the Longhorns. Needless to say, the game still stands as arguably the biggest non-BCS bowl game wins in school history, a thrilling 35-30 finish that made the nation pay attention to the little team in the northwest with the flashy uniforms suddenly making all the noise.
Led by quarterback Joey Harrington and receiver Keenan Howry, the Ducks’ victory that night in San Diego was etched in the history books by one of the most celebrated plays of that era, the infamous WR-reverse-pass designed to set up a pass back to Harrington. The Ducks had used the play previously that season with minimal success–Howry could not get the pass off and needed to scramble for positive yards against Wisconsin to start the season, and then the play was completely stuffed the next time they called it in the civil war game vs. OSU. Third time’s the charm however, as against Texas the play broke wide open.
Howry’s run fake drew the defense in with him, and he unleashed a perfect touch pass to a streaking and determined Joey Ballgame. The stumble-stagger-dive into the end zone by the beloved QB is still often replayed before home games at Autzen stadium, an iconic moment that became the highlight utilized for the Heisman hype campaign by Oregon to put Harrington in the spotlight.
In previous seasons, receivers like Tony Hartley, Damon Griffin, and Marshaun Tucker had been the recipients of the majority of the passes; but in 2001 the Ducks featured a few up and comers in receivers Keenan Howry and Samie Parker, who along with tight ends Justin Peele and George Wrighster, receiver Jason Willis, and even fullback Josh Line would prove to be worthy replacements.
Although much of the attention was focused on Joey and the Oregon passing game, the Ducks were sneaky-good at running the football that year too, with Maurice Morris and Onterrrio Smith each accumulating over 1,000 yards in that dominant season (the first time in school history two players had rushed for a thousand yards in the same season), and if that wasn’t enough, the Ducks also forced defenses to respond to and cover the threat of Howry running on reverses.
Parlaying the momentum built off of the Holiday Bowl win, the Ducks came flying out of the gates to start the 2001 season, and began at a perfect 6-0. Oregon would first prevail over Wisconsin in Autzen to start the season, avenging the loss in Madison the year before. The final score of 31-28 would prove to be a recurring theme of close wins for the Ducks that season. During the opener, Keenan Howry showed off his versatile abilities on the field: catching passes, returning punts, and even gashing the Badgers on the ground.
After besting the Utah Utes the next week, the Ducks would welcome in USC for an epic matchup against 2002 Heisman-winning quarterback Carson Palmer and the Trojans.
While Palmer had success throwing (over 400 yards), Oregon CB Steve Smith picked off the Trojan QB three times. With the game on the line and the Ducks trailing 21-22, “Captain comeback” led the Ducks on a legendary 61-yard drive, one that featured two 22-yard gains by Keenan Howry to set up a 32 yard field goal from Jared Siegel with just 12 seconds remaining on the clock. The 24-22 win was another early test for the Ducks, a team that would be further tested as they set out for three straight road games.
The Oregon team would show that they could also win on the road, earning a 38-21 win at Utah State, then dropping 63 points on an over-matched Arizona Wildcats squad. Finally, the Ducks traveled to Berkley and made themselves right at home, thrashing the pathetic Golden Bears 48-7.
After three straight games and three straight wins on the road, Oregon came back for the homecoming game against Stanford. A wildly entertaining back-and-forth game ensued. The Ducks controlled much of the game, but in the 4th quarter things suddenly turned sour. With Stanford’s starting QB knocked out of the game, the Ducks had two consecutive punts blocked along with an interception and several other miscues, allowing the Cardinal to comeback from a 42-24 deficit to lose 49-42.
But the loss wasn’t without its heroes. Keenan Howry rose to the occasion and had the most productive game in UO history in terms of all purpose yards. Howry would set a career high with nine catches for a career best 152 yards. Howry also amassed 186 punt return yards, including an 81-yard touchdown return.
When the final seconds ticked off the clock, as devastated as the Duck faithful were with the loss, at least one comfort was that Keenan Howry had more than delivered that day. 338 total yards were the most all-time for a single-game effort in Oregon history, at least for one week. The loss broke a 23-game home winning streak in Autzen Stadium, the longest in the nation for all of one week, and would prove to be the only loss of that season.
The team traveled next to Pullman, to face pesky Washington State. This bounce-back game was highlighted by Onterrio Smith’s 285 rushing yards and 57 kick return yards, surpassing Howry’s newly christened record game a week before by a mere six yards. This mark was made all the more impressive in that Smith didn’t start the game, and barely played until the 2nd half.
In back-to-back games, Oregon fans had seen two record-breaking performances. The hard fought 24-17 win at Wazzu was preserved by a Wesly Mallard pass break-up as time expired on the Cougs, continuing the ongoing trend that had not only earned Harrington the title “Captain Comeback” but the team commonly referred to as “the Cardiac Kids.”
Next up came Arizona State, who simply would have no answer for Howry and the Ducks, as the Devils were blitzed 42-24 in Autzen. During the game, Howry matched his career high with nine catches for 126 yards and a Oregon Ducks record four TD receptions. The win ran the Ducks record to 8-1, with only two regular season games remaining, Howry proving to be one of the most versatile and dangerous weapons in the nation.
Oregon next traveled to UCLA to take on the Bruins. In another game that was too close for comfort, the Bruins defense held tough, limiting the Ducks’ passing attack. In a total team effort, the Ducks escaped with a 21-20 win to set up a Civil War game that for the second year in a row had conference title implications. With expectations for the game to have major implications, before the season it had been pushed back in the schedule to December 1st to accommodate a national television audience, the first time the teams had ever played a regular season game in December. The three week layoff would prove difficult, both in deteriorating Oregon weather conditions, and the rust resulting from not following a weekly game routine.
It would go down as one of the closest matchups against the OSU rodents in recent history. Both teams battled each other early on in a back and forth defensive affair in a torrential downpour that further minimized offensive production. With OSU leading 6-3 and the weather conditions turning biblical, it was once again Keenan Howry who would break the game open.
After forcing an OSU punt in the 4th quarter, Howry took the return straight down the middle of the field untouched for a score to put Oregon ahead. With the clutch punt return, Howry again authored one of the biggest and most important plays in Oregon history.
They say it never rains in Autzen stadium, but just as the 1st team Pac-10 player scored, the flood gates opened up and the fans in attendance were doused in one of the hardest rains ever witnessed at Autzen stadium. A late touchdown by Maurice Morris and a Rashad Bauman interception sealed the victory, and Oregon’s outright Pac-10 title for the first time since 1994.
With the win in hand, Oregon had swept their final two games of the year to post a 10-win season, the 17-14 outcome against the Beavers sealing a BCS bowl invite. But which one? The Ducks were ranked in all of the polls as the #2 team in the country, EXCEPT the BCS computer poll.
Oregon would be famously “snubbed” by the BCS that year. Despite being blown out by a two-loss Colorado team just weeks before, Nebraska was chosen to play against Miami for the National title instead of the Ducks. Nebraska was predictably dominated in the Championship game, while Oregon somewhat surprisingly pounded heavy favorite Colorado, which had beaten Texas in the Big-12 title game and was also drawing heavy consideration for the BCS title game despite two regular season losses.
When the dust settled in Tempe, Oregon had earned their first BCS bowl win in the Fiesta Bowl over the Buffaloes, 38-16. Keenan Howry got the Oregon scoring party started that day with a 28-yard TD reception in the 1st quarter. With the Fiesta Bowl trophy in hand, Oregon finished the best season in school history, a final record of 11-1, ranked #2 in the country in every poll, including the BCS computers that had prevented the Ducks from playing in the game everyone retrospectively wanted to see, Miami vs. Oregon.
Prior to the next season as a senior, Keenan Howry became the face of Oregon football when he appeared on a billboard in times square with the message, “We’re Back.” Howry joined former teammate Joey Harrington as the only two Ducks to appear in the highly-publicized billboard ads.
Keenan Howry Career notes:
Oregon WR 1999-2002 from Los Angeles California.
9 catches 126 yards and his 4 TD’s vs ASU are still a single-game Oregon record.
Receiving- 52 catches 682 yards 9 TD’s
Rushing- 4 carries 51 yards 1 TD 12.8 av.
Punt Return- 32 att 465 14.5 2 TD’s.
#1 UO Career punt return leader with 1,221 yards on 104 returns and a 11.7 average.
#1 (Tied Cliff Harris) UO career punt return TD’s with 4.
#1 (Tied-Jeff Maehl) UO Career TD receptions – 24 receiving TD’s.
#3 UO Career receiving yards with 2,698.
#6 UO Career All purpose yards with 4,114.
Drafted in the 7th round of the 2003 NFL draft to the Minnesota Vikings.
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