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Ducks Taking Another Flight South?

October 10, 2003|CHRIS DUFRESNE

Of all the slogans Oregon might have considered for the 2003 season, rest assured that "Here We Go Again" was not one of them.

Oregon's fall from national eminence was one of last year's bigger mysteries, the Ducks losing six of their last seven games after starting 6-0 and climbing to No. 6 in the rankings.

Yet, after a 4-0 start this year that included a victory over No. 3 Michigan, Oregon has lost two games in a row and fallen out of the polls.

Here ... We ... Go ... Again?

Everywhere they go now, the Ducks are reminded of last year's collapse.

This weekend, Oregon plays at Arizona State, the school that started the 2002 turn toward topsy-turvy.

Oregon was 6-0 last year and had a 21-0 lead on Arizona State, in Eugene, when the Ducks got webbed feet. Andrew Walter passed for a conference-record 536 yards in leading Arizona State to a 45-42 comeback victory.

It set the Ducks into tailspin.

Oregon's 4-0 start appeared a signal of recovery, not relapse, but the Sept. 20 Michigan win was followed by a cover spread in Sports Illustrated, a 55-16 home thrashing by Washington State and last week's nonconference loss at Utah.

Fearing another season slip-sliding away, Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti made a position-by-position assessment last Monday, then demanded written responses from his players.

Rather than spreading dread, Bellotti is making the point that, with a 1-1 conference record, the Pac-10 title remains a realistic goal.

"We're one game out, that's the reality of it, and it's a wacky conference," he said. "So I think we have a chance to be a factor in this whole thing. And it's important that our players understand that."

Bellotti is in his ninth year at Oregon and is the Pac-10's top coach in that span, yet his program has definitely slipped a peg since the 11-1 season in 2001 ended with a No. 2 national rating.

Some of the proposed explanations:

* Injuries. No coach likes to use them as excuses, but Oregon has lost six players to season-ending injuries, among them standout offensive guard Joey Forster and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. Sixteen players have made their debuts in the first six games.

* The talent level is down. In 2001, Oregon boasted a backfield of quarterback Joey Harrington and tailback Maurice Morris. This year, the Ducks have gotten inconsistent play from both positions. In the Utah loss, quarterbacks Kellen Clemens and Jason Fife combined to complete 15 of 33 passes while three Oregon tailbacks rushed for a total of 44 yards.

* Attrition at coaching. Consider the talent that has been raided from Bellotti's staff in recent years: California Coach Jeff Tedford, Arizona State Coach Dirk Koetter, plus top assistants Chris Peterson (Boise State offensive coordinator), Bob Gregory (defensive coordinator at Cal) and Tom Osborne (assistant head coach under Koetter at Arizona State).

* Too much go-for-broke on defense. The unyielding Oregon philosophy under coordinator Nick Aliotti is stopping the run at all cost. This works great when a headstrong team like Michigan wanders into your web, not so great when Washington State plays it smarter and simply shreds your secondary.

* The Michigan win was over-hyped. Oregon was never as good as that victory suggested and the entire school got caught up in the hangover.

"I don't think there was [a hangover] with our team as much there was with the fans and the people around here," Bellotti said. "They talked about being exhausted from the Michigan game, like they could hardly cheer the next week. We felt, I felt, very strongly that our team was prepared mentally."

Bellotti even addressed his team about the so-called SI cover jinx.

"I wasn't going to run from it or be scared of it," Bellotti said. "I can't help what people made of the Michigan game, whether leading up to it or after it. But we did address it with our players."

A week after beating Michigan, Oregon committed nine turnovers in the Washington State loss, a defeat Bellotti calls the most "unbelievable game I've ever been associated with in 40 years of organized football."

The defense played well a 17-13 loss at Utah, but the offense was MIA.

The good news for Oregon is that anything can happen in the Pac-10, and usually does.

Oregon had better hope it happens soon.


Pac Bits

Arizona has shown great balance this year, all of it bad. The Wildcats rank last among 117 schools in total offense and 110th in total defense.

Washington Coach Keith Gilbertson says he is putting an end to the sideline bickering that went on last weekend at the Rose Bowl after UCLA scored 39 unanswered points in a 46-16 victory.

"There will not be any more hysterics anymore on our sidelines," Gilbertson said.

The comments were, in part, directed at receiver Reggie Williams, who made disparaging remarks about UCLA cornerback Matt Ware and complained after the game about not getting enough catches.

Arizona State's Coach Koetter, when asked if his offense had become too predictable: "People are certainly telling me it is."

Surprise, surprise: This week's NCAA stats reveal UCLA is 16th in total defense while USC is 65th. Oregon State's Steven Jackson is second in rushing at 146 yards a game.

California, Oregon State and Washington State all have open dates this weekend.

Talk about staggered starts: Cal has played seven games already this season to Stanford's three.

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