2003 football: A new beginning for the Ducks

In 2001, Oregon football was on top of the world as far as Duck fans were concerned. The Green and Yellow of Oregon finished their best season ever with a win over Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl and a final No. 2 ranking nationally. Quarterback Joey Harrington was the darling of the NFL draft, and it seemed everywhere one looked there was a lot of talk that the Ducks had finally reached the status of a football power.

Headed into the season last August, hopes soared as the Ducks finally were on the receiving end of national respect and at one point in September, Oregon found itself ranked No. 9 nationally. Then the bottom fell out. Oregon started the season off with six straight wins but lost six out of the last seven including a 38-17 loss in the Seattle Bowl to Wake Forest. A team that had found so many ways to win in 2001 found as many ways to lose in 2002.

The first four games of 2003 had the feel of a team that had re-found its winning ways. Winning on the road at Mississippi State, a workman like win at home over Nevada, a dominating performance against a struggling Arizona produced another road win and finally the capper. A bowl-like atmosphere at Autzen Stadium was the setting for a win over traditional powerhouse Michigan, in what Head Coach Mike Bellotti called his biggest non-conference home win. Oregon found itself on the cover of Sports Illustrated and ranked No. 10. Then the bottom fell out. Wait a minute, didn't I just say that? Well, it is true. Following the win over Michigan and a week of hyperbole, the Cougars from Washington State put on an old fashion thrashing of the Ducks in Autzen Stadium. The Ducks managed to turn the ball over nine times and have two punts blocked. The game ended up a 55-16 loss for Oregon and the game really wasn't even that close.

What was the cause for the turn around from a powerhouse to an outhouse?

"(The) biggest problem is the line of scrimmage," commented Bellotti in addressing what is going wrong for the Ducks.

Last week the Ducks had the ball nearly 10 minutes less than the Utes in the 17-13 loss to Utah. Oregon was only 4-of-14 in 3rd down conversions and gave up five sacks. Even worse, Duck ball carriers only rushed for 80 yards and 27 of those yards were gained by a scrambling quarterback, Jason Fife. In the first four games of the season, the quarterback combination of Kellen Clemens and Fife did not throw an interception. However, in the last two games the pair has thrown eight interceptions. In the first four games the running game averaged 180.75 yards per game, but in the last two games that average dropped to and anemic 67.0 ypg.

Oregon has used a two-quarterback system so far this season. Senior Jason Fife finished last season with respectable statistics (190-367-10, 2,752 yards, 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.) However, Fife's leadership was questioned and he was pulled from the Seattle Bowl in favor of sophomore Kellen Clemens. Clemens gained valuable experience last season (23-40-1, two touchdowns and one interception). Clemens has started all of the games this season and Fife been like a shot of instant energy coming in second quarter. The results so far have been interesting. The pair has combined for 117-for-211, 1,734 yards (288.9 ypg) and 12 touchdowns. Both have thrown touchdowns of over 30 yards. Fife is a good runner and has rushed for 74 yards on 20 carries and three touchdowns.

True Freshman Johnny DuRocher from Bethel High School in Spanaway, Washington, is the No. 3 quarterback. DuRocher was the Washington Gatorade Player of the Year last season.

Gone from last fall's roster is runner back Onterrio Smith who left after his junior season for the NFL. Smith had back to back 1,000 yard rushing seasons for the Ducks, but for much of the second half of the season struggled with injuries. In 2001 the Ducks produced two 1,000-yard rushers in Smith and Maurice Morris. Last year however, the rushing game totaled only 2,159 yards as opposed to 2,516 yards in 2001. The 2003 running game is rushing by committee, with four backs sharing the load. Junior Ryan Shaw, 35-148 yards, 4.2 ypg, junior Kenny Washington, 21-88 yards, one touchdown, 4.2 ypg, sophomore Terrence Whitehead, 80-261 yards, three touchdown, 3.3 ypg and red shirt freshman Chris Vincent, 46-152 yards, 3.3 ypg have all shown the ability to perform.

The receiving corps was depleted from last season with the loss of Keenan Howry (now with Minnesota) and Jason Willis (now with Seattle) through graduation and tight end George Wrighster (now with Jacksonville) entered the NFL draft. . Senior Samie Parker, 5-11, 177 has been the principal target for either Fife or Clemens this fall. Bellotti has described Parker as that has learned how to control and use his speed. Parker has 31 catches for 531 yards and three touchdowns. His longest is 55 yards against Mississippi State.

"He is a different speed than probably anybody on our team and anyone in the nation," said Bellotti.

Sophomore Demetrius Williams, 6-2, 180, starts opposite of Parker and against Arizona when Parker turned his ankle, Williams responded with five catches for 139 yards and three touchdowns. For the season Williams has 31 catches for 597 yards and six touchdowns. Speed and agility are trademarks for Williams. He runs a 3.63-second, 20-yard shuttle and is considered one of all-time fastest receivers in Oregon history. Junior Kellen Taylor was a pleasant surprise during the spring and fall camp. Taylor, 6-1, 190 is a transfer from San Francisco City College. He was a 5-star rated wide receiver coming out of junior college by TheInsiders.com. Taylor plays hard on every down and catches everything thrown at him. Junior college transfer Marcus Maxwell, 6-3, 198 also had an impressive fall. Replacing Wrighster at tight end may not be as big a challenge that it might have been considering sophomore Tim Day has developed nicely. Day is a horse at 6-4, 268 and saw significant playing time last year. Along with Day junior college transfer Eddie Whitaker, 6-4, 235 from LA Valley College and junior Ryan Loftin, 6-4, 244.

"When you take away Onterrio Smith, George Wrighster and Keenan Howry, you're talking about a tremendous amount of offense and points walking out the door," Bellotti admitted. "So the challenge will be greater to the offense to not only sustain but improve their performance."

The offensive line features a big, athletic line that is deep in experience. Second team All Pac-10 senior center Dan Weaver, 6-5, 282, is the leader. Juniors Adam Snyder, 6-6, 310, Nick Steitz, 6-4, 305, Robin Knebel, 6-6, 316 and sophomore Ian Reynoso, 6-4, 297 are big, athletic and experienced. Big Mike DeLagrange, 6-6, 328 should also be available for duty. Bellotti had called his line the most solid part of the team. The linemen had the pictures on a billboard. Snyder was named Pac-10 Offensive Players of the Week after the Michigan game, but the big men have done some serious soul searching this week. Long time Oregon assistant Neal Zoumboukos lit into his players and reflected on the accolades that had been heaped on the linemen in the first four games,

"No more sugar for them," Zoumboukos told the Eugene Register-Guard. "They never should have been on a billboard, they never should have been in the newspaper, there never should have been a (Pac-10) player of the week award. No more of that sugar. It's all salt this week, and for the rest of the year."

Defensively, starting defensive tackle/defensive end junior Igor Oshansky, 6-6, 305, was unavailable in the spring because of off-season surgery but came back strongly during fall camp. Senior Jr. Siavii, 6-4, 323, is one of the biggest and strongest linemen ever to play at Oregon. Joining Siavii and Olshansky in the defensive tackle rotation is junior Robbie Valenzuala, 6-2, 290. Junior Devan Long, 6-4, 258, junior Chris Solomona, 6-5, 275, red shirt freshman Darius Sanders, 6-5, 265, and red shirt freshman Matt Toeaina, 6-2, 266 are the defensive ends. The Oregon defensive front line has limited the opposition running attack to 422 total yards in six games or a 70.3 ypg average.

Haloti Ngata, 6-4, 339 was injured in the Mississippi State game with a torn ACL in his left knee. He is one of seven Oregon players lost for the season due to injury. The others include, junior wide receiver Keith Allen, senior offensive lineman Joey Forster, senior tight end Josh Rogers, sophomore tight end Nate LiaBraaten, red shirt freshman linebacker Rob Hamilton and freshman linebacker Ramond White.

Senior Kevin Mitchell, 5-11, 220, is the heart of the defense at his linebacker position. Mitchell recorded 255 total tackles last year. Junior Jerry Matson, 6-1, 224 and senior David Martin, 6-0, 219 have shown good speed and the ability to run down tailbacks and make interceptions. Sophomore Anthony Trucks, 6-1, 216 has some people thinking he will be in the NFL someday. Mitchell has 42 tackles, Matson has 23 tackles while Trucks has 16.

Senior safety Keith Lewis, 6-1, 200 considered going into the NFL draft but stayed at Oregon and Lewis who was one of the more vocal leaders of the Ducks last year, but has toned his rhetoric down this fall and wants to let his play show through.

To call the Oregon 2002 secondary bad, would not do justice to their struggle. Often playing two true freshmen as cornerbacks, the Ducks were often tested and failed. Fortunately Oregon was able to recruit Rodney Woods, 5-11, 178, from Fresno City College brings more size and speed. Woods will join Senior Steven Moore, 5-9, 179 at cornerback along with sophomores Justin Phinisee, 5-10, 195, Marques Binns, 5-11, 164 and Aaron Gipson, 5-8, 179. Senior Sam Hughes, 5-10, 188 and junior Charles Favroth, 5-11, 197 also expect to contribute. The safeties (in addition to Lewis) include sophomore Demetrius Spates, 5-11, 198, junior Marley Tucker, 6-0. 181, and Stephen Clayton, 5-11, 193. The entire defensive secondary is a step quicker this fall and a year more experienced than the squad that suffered through 2002.

The Ducks still struggle though this year holding down passing attacks. They have given up 281.7 ypg passing and 14 touchdowns.

Special teams are lead by All Pac-10 and 2nd Team All-American field goal kicker junior Jared Siegel. Siegel was as ambitious in the weight room as anyone on the team during the off season by setting records in his weight category. Siegel is 6-for-8 in field goals this season and has kicked 23 PATs. He is 3-for-3 in field goals longer than 50 yards in his career. Punting duties is handled by freshman Paul Martinez.

It has been a tale of two seasons so far in 2003 for the Ducks. A team that thought it had found the right track back to the Pac-10 title is now on a side spur waiting for something big to happen to salvage their season. Knowing full well that Arizona State is the team that was out for the count last year in the first quarter of the game in Eugene, only to come back and break the hearts of the Ducks and their fans. The great come-from-behind win by ASU seemed to foretell what was in store for the Ducks in 2002. A win in Tempe could have the reverse effect this year, however many wonder if the problems that caused all the disappointment of the 2002 still exist in 2003.

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