It was the most monumental play in the history of Oregon football, and one of the most transformational in college football history. Late in the 1994 season, the Washington Huskies marched into the red zone in the fourth quarter for what looked like another game-winning touchdown in what had been a very one-sided rivalry with the Ducks.
Huskies quarterback Damon Huard fired a pass to his left only to watch as a redshirt freshman named Kenny Wheaton burst in front of the throw and picked it off at the 3-yard line.
As Wheaton flew down the sideline with the ball, cutting inside to avoid a would-be tackler, Autzen Stadium erupted in almost shocked disbelief.
"Kenny Wheaton's gonna score!" screamed Ducks broadcaster Jerry Allen. "Kenny Wheaton's gonna score!"
To this day, "The Pick" is replayed on the big screen before every Ducks home game. Wheaton is in the school's Hall of Fame. And Oregon, a mostly-mediocre program which had only seven winning seasons since 1967, has had only one losing season since.
"It is the sacrament of Oregon's program," wrote The Oregonian's Rachel Bachman, "and Wheaton is its patron saint."
Nearly 20 years since the play that changed so much for Oregon sports, Kenny Wheaton's cousin, Markus, is a star college football player.
At Oregon State.
When No. 5 Georgia and No. 6 South Carolina meet Saturday in Columbia, S.C., college football fans can expect another odd chapter in what has become a strange journey for this rivalry.
Located about three hours from each other, the Bulldogs and Gamecocks border rivalry dates back to 1894. But the level of animosity between UGA and USC has increased exponentially since head coach Steve Spurrier arrived in Columbia.
The level of weirdness has also increased exponentially over the past decade or so. In 2002, Georgia linebacker David Pollack swiped the ball out of the hand of South Carolina quarterback Corey Jenkins in one of the strangest pick-sixes you'll ever see. That play proved to be the difference as Georgia won 13-7.
Last year, South Carolina defensive lineman Melvin Ingram had an unbelievable game, scoring touchdowns on a fake punt and on a fumble recovery. He also smothered an onside kick to seal a wild 41-37 Gamecocks victory.
Georgia holds a commanding 46-16-2 all-time lead in the series, but Spurrier's familiarity with the Bulldogs from his days at Florida – as well as his efforts to return the Gamecocks to prominence – has translated to relative success for South Carolina. USC has gone 3-4 against the Bulldogs under Spurrier's guidance, including winning the last two contests.
With both teams now boasting 5-0 records and top 10 national rankings, where will the next chapter in this journey take us?
– Eric Ivie
A Wheaton playing for the Beavers, a foe so bitter the Oregon-Oregon State annual rivalry is dubbed "The Civil War," seems just about impossible considering not only how cherished Kenny is in Eugene, but also how Markus grew up loving the Ducks. He says he first watched "The Pick" when he was 14, calling it "amazing." Kenny and Markus are close, despite the age gap. When Beavers coach Mike Riley heard his staff wanted to recruit the younger Wheaton, he reminded them who his cousin is. It's the equivalent of Florida State going after Steve Spurrier's grandson.
"[Oregon] was my first visit," Markus says. "But some things got turned around."
That's a funny choice of words considering how so many things got turned around in Eugene after Kenny Wheaton made The Pick. Now, Beavers fans hope Markus' choice will bring the same kind of reversal of fortune in Corvallis. OSU has beaten Oregon only six times since Kenny made his big play.
"It's big-time," says receivers coach Brent Brennan. "It's big-time Markus is here and chose not to go to Oregon."
Markus, one of the nation's top-rated receivers coming out of high school, was recruited all over the Pac 12, but his visit to Oregon State brought a bit of a shock. He says he loved "pretty much everything: the coaching staff, the small town, the players, the offense that we run."
In his fourth year in Corvallis, Wheaton is now the heart of the OSU offense, which has the Beavers ranked No. 1 by three BCS computers. That's right – No. 1 in the nation. Human pollsters disagree, placing Alabama at No. 1 and OSU closer to 20th. But the Beavers have already beaten two ranked teams in Wisconsin and UCLA, plus a high-scoring Arizona team on the road to go 3-0. Wheaton, a 6-foot-2 speedster who is nearly impossible to cover, is a big part of the reason.
"He's our unquestioned leader," says Brennan. "He already had it going this offseason. He was an absolute beast. He stayed the whole summer."
Recently, the Beavers have been as good as their wideouts. Their highest ranking ever came after the 2000 season when Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh led OSU to a No. 4 BCS spot. After three games, Wheaton and sophomore Brandin Cooks have the Beavers passing attack ranked fourth in the nation (362.7 yards per game). Last week at Arizona, Wheaton had 10 catches for 166 yards and two touchdowns. Coming into the year, USC was thought to have two of the best receivers in the nation in Marquise Lee and Robert Woods. Wheaton currently has more yards than both.
But as any Beaver knows, it's not a great season in Corvallis unless the Ducks go down. Can that happen this year, with Oregon ranked second in the nation?
"I think so, yes sir," Wheaton says. "I really think we can line up and beat anybody."
The Beavers have four of their six remaining conference games at home, including the rivalry game against the Ducks. And is that game ever weird for Markus, considering his family is so beloved in Eugene?
"I don't really hate 'em," Wheaton says. Then he pauses before continuing. "The week of playing Oregon, I hate 'em."
And the week of playing Oregon State, some members of his family hate the Beavers. "Half his family is on one side," says Brennan, "and half is on Markus' side."
Every Wheaton is cheering for Markus, of course. Even Kenny.
"I couldn't tell you," Markus says with a big laugh.
Well, they call it a Civil War for a reason.
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