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PACIFIC 10 FOOTBALL / DAN HAFNER : Oregon, Arizona Will Help Sort Out Race

October 27, 1994|DAN HAFNER

The Pacific 10 Conference, probably deservedly, has been the brunt of ridicule this season.

Still, the conference race is exciting.

While Arizona is the only team unbeaten in conference play and has the inside track for a Rose Bowl berth, it has become a four-team fight. USC, Washington State and surprising Oregon could earn a trip to Pasadena.

The Ducks will find out their status Saturday when they play host to Arizona at Eugene. After the opening three games, it seemed Oregon would finish closer to last than first. After struggling against Portland State, Oregon lost to Hawaii and Utah of the Western Athletic Conference. As it turns out, Utah is a good team.

Then Rich Brooks straightened his team out under unusual circumstances. Despite injuries to quarterback Danny O'Neil and receiver Cristin McLemore, two of the three returning offensive starters, the Ducks defeated Iowa and stunned USC. But running back Ricky Whittle was sidelined.

In a depleted state, the Ducks lost at Washington State and were quickly discounted.

Not yet.

McLemore is sidelined for the season, but O'Neil is regaining his form. With victories over California and Washington, Oregon is 3-1 in conference play.

After the Wildcats, the Ducks play three teams with losing records--Arizona State, Stanford and Oregon State.

"It's getting so every game is a 'must,' " Brooks said. "But we went into the Cal and Washington games feeling we could win, and we feel the same way this week.

"Danny is back in his best form and he's getting familiar with his young receivers. But if we expect to win, we have to run the ball. I know that's some order against Arizona."

However, the Arizona defense has been the decisive factor only in the Washington State game on Oct. 15. Otherwise, it has not performed to expectations.

"You don't get any better than our defense did against the Cougars," Coach Dick Tomey said. "In some of the others, we weren't dominating. But I can't fault this team. We are where we want to be.

"This is just another of a series of tough conference games. We have to presume that Oregon will win its last three games. So we have to win to keep our goal in sight.

"Oregon is a versatile football team. It has a stout defense and a lot of very good football players. We are fortunate that our offense has been picking us up recently."

Danny White's passing and Ontiwaun Carter's running beat UCLA, not the defense.

Oregon's Brooks said he will turn his brilliant redshirt freshman cornerback, Kenny Wheaton, loose again this week. Wheaton has been playing full time because starting cornerback Herman O'Berry has been hampered by injuries.

Wheaton earned his first recognition when he made a key interception in the USC game and Oregon went on to win. He also had an interception against Cal.

But last week against Washington, he made the big play of the season for Oregon. With the Huskies driving for what would have been the winning touchdown, Wheaton stepped in front of receiver Dave Janoski on the three, intercepted the pass and weaved his way 97 yards to a touchdown. A 24-20 lead was turned into a 31-20 victory and kept alive Oregon's hopes for its first trip to the Rose Bowl in 37 years.

"Kenny was always on our five- and six-man back defenses, but the way he stepped in when Herman was hurt has been a key to our season," Brooks said.

*

All season it has been defense that has carried Washington State.

Until last Saturday. Arizona State scored 21 points, which would have been enough to beat the Cougars in three games and tie them in two others. The Cougars had scored more than 21 points only against Fresno State.

But Chad Davis, a sophomore quarterback from San Diego, completed 28 of 40 passes for 355 yards and three touchdowns. By the time the Sun Devils mounted their late charge, Washington State had 28 points. It was a 63-yard pass play from Davis to Eric Moore on the first play of the last quarter that wrecked Arizona State's hopes for a tie or upset.

According to Sun Devil linebacker Jason Kyle, the Cougar offense didn't do anything unexpected.

"They just did a great job of executing," he said. "If we had done our job on defense, the offense would have won this one."

*

After finally leading Stanford to a conference victory, Steve Stenstrom made another convert.

"Steve Stenstrom is the best quarterback we have played against," Oregon State linebacker Kane Rogers said. "We were beating him up, chasing him around, and he still came up with great plays."

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