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Walker’s alert play was one for the ages

SALT LAKE CITY — While the ESPN cameras focused on Kaelin Clay’s touchdown celebration, Joe Walker had his eyes on the beanbag.

Walker saw the referee signal that Clay had dropped the football short of the goal line and then the Oregon junior linebacker finished one of the craziest plays in college football this season by picking up the fumble and returning it 100 yards for a touchdown.

“I thought he might have dropped the ball early, but I was not really sure, so I was running down there and I saw the ref throw the beanbag, so I picked it up,” Walker said.

What Clay thought was a 79-yard touchdown catch to give Utah a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter turned out to be a tying touchdown in Oregon’s 51-27 win over Utah on Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

“Huge turn of events with the fumble and a great lesson for all of us,” UO coach Mark Helfrich said.

Helfrich recalled similar plays in the past by Chad Johnson of Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl and his own running back, Byron Marshall, in a season-opening victory over South Dakota.

“Coach Helfrich had gone over it after (South Dakota), so we know about it,” Walker said.

The Ducks actually discussed similar scenarios before the season.

“We talk about it all the time,” Oregon defensive coordinator Don Pellum said. “When you watch games and ESPN highlights you always pick out plays like that and make a reel of them. It’s one of the plays coach Helfrich goes over in fall camp.

“You talk to the offense about crossing the line and giving the ball to the official. We’re in the same meeting and if it’s on the ground, pick it up.”

Walker said he was at the 30-yard line still pursuing Clay when he saw the early release. While the Utes and their fans celebrated, Walker headed for the ball.

“When I saw the beanbag I was pretty sure it was live, so I was going to run it back just in case,” Walker said.

Safety Erick Dargan was the first to pick up the ball, but when he lost it, Walker grabbed it and ran the length of the field.

“Anytime a play like that happens, we’re kind of trained to pick it up and go,” Dargan said. “If it’s ruled down, it’s ruled down. Fortunately, he dropped it a little early and did his celebration. We just picked it up, Joe ended up getting it and going 100 yards. It was a big play that changed the game.”

Walker’s touchdown began a string of 24 straight points for the Ducks that gave them a lead they would not relinquish.

“I thought it was a little bit of a momentum change there,” Walker said.

“I had my guys in front of me leading the way, so it felt good.”

Certainly, some defenders would have stopped on the play once Clay was out of reach, but Walker said that too is discussed by the Ducks.

“Coach always harps on running to the ball, so we were all running down there,” Walker said.

Walker acknowledged that he was “a little bit gassed” by the end of the run, but the celebration was a blur.

“Just excited, I guess,” he said.