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Leading with their heads

No. 6 Cal, No. 11 Oregon playing mind games before today's Pac-10 showdown

September 29, 2007|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

What happens when Oregon's Dennis Dixon, the Pacific 10 Conference's total offense leader, a quarterback who hasn't thrown an interception and directs a team averaging 48.5 points and 537 yards a game, runs straight into the defense of the California Golden Bears?

"We're already in his head," Cal cornerback Brandon Hampton said.

He should know. When the Ducks played the Bears last year, Hampton picked off a pass by Dixon on the first play from scrimmage, which led to a California touchdown, a prelude to Cal's 45-24 victory. It was an outcome that sent the then-11th-ranked Ducks spiraling toward a 7-6 disappointment of a season.

The rematch today will be played amid the usual ear-splitting decibel levels at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. -- where anything can happen except peace and quiet.

"It's a zoo," Bears right guard Noris Malele said of the Ducks' home. "It's the noisiest place in the Pac-10."

There is much for Oregon followers to shout about these days. Dixon had five touchdowns and passed for 367 yards last week when Oregon dusted Stanford, 55-31. Will there be a repeat performance this week against the Bears?

Hampton won't hear of it: "He's a pretty good player, but I'm sure he's been thinking about us all week. So we're already in his head before the game even starts."

Dixon will break down, Hampton said, like all quarterbacks.

"If you bring pressure, some take longer to break down," he said, "but they will break down."

There are plenty of pressing matters worth breaking down in the Cal-Oregon matchup, the first heavyweight showdown in the Pac-10 this year. Both teams are 4-0 overall, 1-0 in conference, and nationally ranked -- Cal sixth in the Associated Press poll and Oregon 11th.

From the perspective of the Golden Bears, it's already a critical juncture in the season.

Look at the numbers. Cal has been ranked 22 consecutive weeks and 48 of the last 52. But the Bears have been ranked higher than No. 6 only six weeks -- all in 2004 -- in the last 54 years.

Coach Jeff Tedford, who has started 5-0 once in his five years with the Bears, was a lot more diplomatic than Hampton on the subject of Dixon and his role leading the No. 1 scoring offense in the Pac-10.

"He's in his comfort zone right now," Tedford said. "He's such a threat. And no interceptions. When he does pull it down and run, he can make you miss. That's the scary thing."

The scariest thing for Cal may be that it hasn't won in Eugene since 1987. But Tedford has an answer for that, too.

"A 20-year streak has nothing to do with these guys on our team," he said. "They weren't even born 20 years ago."

Hampton said what the Bears are thinking about is down the road, and that winning today keeps them traveling in the right direction. That would be straight into Bowl Championship Series territory, something either Cal or Oregon will keep tracking with a victory, besides stepping into the circle as USC's top rival for the Pac-10 title.

As for the loser, it's not too early to start making plans for the Holiday Bowl.

Tedford said he's thinking about the Ducks, not the BCS, which he says "has nothing to do with anything. I'm not really concerned with it."

But Hampton knows what's at stake against Oregon.

"Of course this is our toughest game so far and they've been beating up on people pretty good," he said. "We have got to win the game to have something meaningful at the end of the year."

And the Bears are going to have to get it done at 41-year-old Autzen, the 54,000-seat stadium that has a field of artificial turf and a team of very authentic firepower. Oregon has won its four games with ease, scoring 48, 39, 52 and 55 points.

"They really haven't been slowed down," Tedford said.

Besides limiting Dixon, Cal's defense must focus on running back Jonathan Stewart, a 230-pound junior who leads the Pac-10 with a rushing average of 125.8 yards a game.

The Bears are averaging 41.5 points a game and counter offensively with quarterback Nate Longshore, receiver-punt return mogul DeSean Jackson and senior tailback Justin Forsett. With Marshawn Lynch gone to the NFL, Forsett is finally getting his turn and he's averaging 5.7 yards a carry and 121 a game -- second to Stewart in the conference.

Jackson hasn't really gotten untracked, in part because he's been attracting extra coverage, according to Tedford.

Jackson averaged 18 yards on his 59 catches last year, but is averaging fewer than nine yards on his 17 receptions this year.

"We need to get the ball in his hands a little more," Tedford said.

The chance for either the Bears or the Ducks to keep moving up in the Pac-10? It's in their hands.

--

thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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