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The death (at least for now) of a rivalry

Posted by on November 5, 2010 in College Football, Oregon Ducks, Sports |

As a lifelong sports fan, I’m no stranger to bitter rivalries. Growing up in the Bay Area a San Francisco Giants, 49ers and Cal Bears fan meant hating all things Southern California – especially the Los Angeles Rams, Dodgers, USC and UCLA. It’s not at all uncommon to find Bay Area residents who dislike Southern California in general. Those who live in one (or have experienced both) regions understand how fundamentally different they are culturally (much to the surprise of the rest of the country – which tends to lump all of California into a single stereotype). But in sports – and especially during the 1970s – the rivalry was also somewhat one-sided. 49er, Giants and Golden Bears fans hated Rams, Dodgers and Trojans more than the other way around. There were two reasons for this 1) Northern California fans in general are simply more passionate about their teams than the laid back SoCal crowd and 2) the NoCal teams generally sucked during those years while the SoCal teams were consistently good – and that got old.

When I was about 7 or so, my family bought season tickets to Cal football games. My parents thought it would be a great way for the family to spend the day – and the price was right (I think they’ve told me a single family ticket was something like $75). So I got to watch a lot of football in person – and quickly learned about the Pac 8 (and later Pac 10) conference teams. The games that really mattered in Berkeley were (in order) Stanford, USC and UCLA. Like most Californians then, I always got the Northwest schools confused. I could never remember if the Ducks were Oregon or Oregon State and if the Beavers played in Eugene or Corvallis, etc.

So when I arrived at the University of Oregon as a JC transfer in 1985, I had no set expectations or ideas about the NW rivalries that existed. I was excited to be going to college at a Pac 10 school and couldn’t wait to go to games again – but in my mind USC, UCLA and Stanford were still the games that mattered most. But then the Ducks had a home game scheduled against Washington and all I started hearing around campus was “Huck the Fuskies” and how much the game meant to fans. I didn’t understand at all – I had nothing against the Huskies as a previous Cal fan. I knew they had built a strong program that was then competing with USC and UCLA for conference championships and I actually liked that – anything that kept them out was OK by me. So I was a little amused by the emotions – until game day.

Chris Miller almost pulled out a close win for the Ducks in the first UW-Oregon game I attended as a student in Eugene. But his long pass bounced off the intended receiver's helmet and the Huskies prevailed.

As was often the case in those days, Autzen Stadium was overrun by 10,000 – 12,000 Husky fans who made the trek south. The parking lot was a swarm of purple – and I heard a lot of trash talking from Husky fans to Ducks fans (telling them how they would never be as good as the Huskies, etc.). This was a novel experience for me. With all the Cal games I had previously attended, I couldn’t recall such a large group of visiting fans being so obnoxious to the home fans. The game was very close and intense. The Ducks and Huskies were tied going into the 4th quarter when UW used a long punt return to secure a game-winning field goal late in the game to go ahead. And they tacked on a 2nd to build a 6 point lead. But the Ducks still had life – and the crowd roared as Zeth Verdon beat UW deep on a Hail Mary pass from QB Chris Miller – only to have the ball bounce off his helmet as the Ducks rally fell short. As a still-somewhat objective observer (I was not yet the rabid fan I quickly evolved into) it seemed obvious to me that these were two fairly even teams and the Huskies barely escaped with a well-earned (but hard-fought) victory. But after the game it was a different story leaving the stadium and in the parking lot. Many Huskies fans taunted Ducks supporters – going way overboard in my mind. And that’s when it first clicked for me – it wasn’t so much the UW team I couldn’t stand, it was their fans.

And so the following year I anxiously anticipated the UO-Huskies game (as did most Ducks fans during those days). This time is was no contest – the Huskies steamrolled the Ducks in Seattle 38-3. This was the golden era in UW football as it was consistently competing for the Pac 10 championship – while the Ducks were simply trying to build a winning program. The Huskies were Kings of Northwest college football during this – and they and many of their fans weren’t at all shy reminding Ducks, Beavers and Cougars fans of this fact. I wanted nothing more than for the Ducks to beat the Huskies – even if it was just once – to help knock them down a peg or two.

I now understood (and felt) the animosity of Ducks fans towards the giant university towards the north in Seattle.

Ducks fans got their wish in 1987 in Autzen Stadium. Oregon finally put it together and beat UW 29-22 – holding on for dear life at the end as Chris Chandler fired 4 incomplete passes in the Ducks end zone as time expired. This was Oregon Ducks QB Bill Musgrave’s freshman year – and he would prove to be a critical figure as the Ducks grew from being a simply competitive team to a winning one.

The following year emotions were even higher – Huskies fans and players thought that the previous year it was simply a case of UW playing so poorly that they lost the game. I remember UW QB Chris Chandler being especially arrogant – he simply refused to give the Ducks any credit when pressed by reporters. I attended the 1988 game with my girlfriend at the time – who also happened to be a UW gymnast. The game was again at Autzen and it was her first (and last) visit there. Did I mention tensions were high? The game was again close and intense and late in the game, UW clung to a 14-10 lead when Musgrave led the Ducks down the field. The Huskies defense tightened after Oregon gained a first and goal with under 2 minutes to go. Finally the game came down to a single play – 4th and goal for the Ducks from the Huskies 5 yard line. They called a timeout and the stadium was buzzing with anticipation. We all knew that it would have to be a pass in the end zone – would Musgrave have enough time to get his pass off and who would he throw it to? But the Ducks surprised everyone with what remains to me as one of the gutsiest calls I’ve ever seen:

Autzen Stadium went absolutely wild – it was without a doubt the first time I (and probably thousands of others) realized how deafening it could be in there. I was jumping around and screaming as well – much to the chagrin of my UW girlfriend. Needless to say, that was the last Ducks-Huskies football game we attended together.

But those two years were but a brief lull in the Huskies dominance of the Ducks. From 1974 to 1986 the Huskies went 12-1 vs Oregon and then won 5 in a row from 1989-1993.

In 1991 I was now living in Seattle and the Ducks were coming to town to take on the Huskies. Even though the Ducks had improved enough that they finally made their first bowl appearance (after a 30+ year drought) a couple of years earlier, they were having a miserable season in ’91. Meanwhile, the Huskies were rolling through an undefeated season – one that would end with them being named co-national champions. That UW team had an absolutely dominant defense led by one of the most dominant defensive lineman I’ve ever seen – Steve Emtman. The Ducks were decimated by injuries when they arrived in Seattle – they were literally down to their 5th string QB. There was no hope for victory.

But my friend Bob and I decided to go to the game anyway to cheer on our Ducks. We bought a package through the UO Alumni Association that included a brunch at Duke’s on Lake Union, a boat ride to Husky Stadium, a tailgate party (with open bar) before the game and tickets to the game – all for $100. It was a steal. So we went and took full advantage of the experience – especially the open bar. We knew the Ducks didn’t have a chance to win the game so we set our expectations lower. We decided we would be happy if the Ducks covered the spread (they were 35+ point underdogs) and if they scored a touchdown in the 2nd half (no other team had done so against UW to that point). The Huskies easily handled the Ducks 29-7 but we got both our wishes – so we were happy.

As nearly every Ducks fan now knows (and Huskies fan is sick of hearing about) the shift in NW football fortunes took place in 1994. As explained in Wikipedia, “In the 1994 edition of the heated rivalry with the University of Washington, the #9-ranked Huskies came into Autzen Stadium with a 5-1 record, including a victory over the University of Miami, snapping a 58 game home winning streak. The game was a tough and close contest, with the Ducks clinging to a 24-20 lead late in the game. UW quarterback Damon Huard guided the Huskies to a first down on the 9 yard line with plenty of time remaining.”

I recall vividly listening to this game on the radio here in Seattle (it wasn’t televised) and having to listen to the UW announcers getting more and more excited as it seemed the Huskies would score late and again break the collective hearts of the Ducks and their fans. I was a nervous wreck listening to the game as my family was hanging out on Alkai Beach in West Seattle. And then The Pick occurred:

Kenny Wheaton became a permanent fixture in Ducks and Huskies memories alike as he sealed Oregon’s victory with the Pick-6. The Ducks went on to win the rest of their games and appear in their first Rose Bowl since 1958.

Suddenly, the Ducks weren’t simply the Huskies’ pesky little brother to the South. They were now a force to be reckoned with (although it took UW fans years to realize – and admit it. The following year the Ducks arrived in Seattle as underdogs (naturally) when Patrick Johnson stunned the Husky Stadium crowd with this play:

The Ducks took an early lead in the game and held on to win 24-22 – thanks in part to multiple missed FGs by the Huskies kicker. As we left Huskies Stadium, we were reminded countlessly how lucky the Ducks were to have won the game – and we happily agreed. We didn’t care.

But I think my favorite Ducks-Huskies moment came two years later in 1997. The Huskies were a top 10 ranked team and the Ducks arrived unranked. Again the Ducks stunned the Huskies and crowd by jumping out to a big lead. But again the Huskies roared back in the 2nd half and eventually took the lead. Akili Smith then led the Ducks on a critical drive in the waning minutes of the game – and on a huge 3rd and 20 play, connected with Patrick Johnson on the Ducks’ version of “The Catch.”

We were sitting in end zone seats (where Huskies graciously place visiting fans) so the play unfolded in front of us – and it was incredible. After the game Ducks players and coaches came to our section of the stadium to celebrate with fans.

Beginning with “The Pick” game, it began the current stretch that has seen the Ducks win 11 of 16 games – including the last 6 in a row by more than 20 points. Even though the Ducks started piling up more wins in the series, “Huskies Week” was still a very big deal to me and my friends – and I would celebrate by emailing old Seattle Times or P-I stories about some of the rare/great Ducks wins over the Huskies.

But a funny thing has happened the past 6-8 years. As Washington’s program spun into a decline and the Ducks continue to rise, the game just doesn’t feel the same – how could it when one team has been so dominant? For old-timers like myself, it still feels somewhat surreal to see the Ducks as the top team in the Northwest (and at least currently, in the country). The memories of Huskies ruling the NW will likely never fade – but the new paradigm in the football landscape was made clear to me when I attended last year’s UW-Oregon game at Husky Stadium. While waiting in line for the restroom at halftime, I struck up a conversation with a Husky student. The game was still close at that point and I told him the Huskies were playing well and had a shot. He just looked at me and said “This is my senior year – and I’ve never seen the Huskies beat the Ducks. Just once, I want to see them at least come close to beating them. I don’t know what it feels like.” And for a brief moment, I almost felt sorry for him.

Almost.

The Ducks and Huskies play on Saturday in Autzen Stadium and the Ducks are a 35-38 point favorite to win the game. Somewhere in Eugene, I’m guessing there are probably a couple of Husky fans who will be happy if their team covers the spread – and maybe even scores in the 4th quarter.

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