2003 football: A new beginning for the Ducks.
By Steve Summers
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.
What was the cause for the turn around from a powerhouse performance to an outhouse finish?
Several factors including assistant coaching changes, conditioning and a senior class that failed to meet the challenges of leadership are reasons why the Ducks went from an 11-win team to a team that lost the second half of its season. Last season, the team seemed to run out of steam at halftime. For the year, the Ducks managed to score 18.3 points in the first half against opponents 13.0 points. However, in the second half during the season, the Ducks scored 11.7 points and gave up 14.6 points to their opponents. Most telling is that the Ducks scored more second half points in the first five games of the season but were outscored in the second half in the last seven games of the season. Consistently letting down in the second half of a football game raises question about conditioning. The Ducks were competitive in the first half of all their games, but like the crowd arriving late back into their seats after the third quarter kickoff, something was missing. Perhaps the play of the team mirrored the crowd's enthusiasm, but all season long, the Ducks and their fans seemed listless during the third quarter of play. Conditioning is a result of the effort put in by the team, and encouraged by the team leaders during the off-season. When the final gun sounded in Seattle to end the Seattle Bowl, the process of rebuilding Oregon football started again.
At one point, Oregon Head Coach Mike Bellotti felt his team had neutralized all the hard work of previous seasons and the team was at "ground zero." Spring workouts could not have come any quicker for the struggling Ducks.
"We have something to prove," Bellotti said. "We have to prove we can move the ball better offensively -- score points -- and we have to prove we can stop people from throwing the ball against us.
"But it's going to be very important to address our own self-image first. We have to find a way to feel good about ourselves. It starts with the way you practice, it starts with the respect of your teammates and it starts with the way you perform. It's very important to understand that we weren't happy with the way last season ended. Whether it's our psyche or our confidence, I think it was lacking the second half of last season. The best way I know to remedy that is to compete -- to come out every day ready to play and believe you have a chance to make a difference."
So far this season the Ducks defeated Mississippi State at Starkville, 42-34, Nevada at Autzen Stadium 31-23, and Arizona on the road 48-10. Many Duck fans felt that regardless of winning, the first two games of the season was not exactly what Bellotti had in mind as a remedy for the previous season. Then last Saturday in the desert of Arizona, a team reminiscent of the 2002 Fiesta Bowl team showed up. The Ducks have demonstrated an ability to score early and often, but the lingering doubts about Oregon's ability to finish in the second half were erased. Oregon scored 20 points in the first half against the Wildcats and then exploded for 21 more points in the third quarter and coasted the rest of the way to the finish.
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 combined for 57-for-89, 852 yards (284.0 ypg) and 11 touchdowns. Both have thrown touchdowns of over 30 yards and maybe the most impressive statistic is that neither has thrown an interception.
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, 19-80 yards, one touchdown, 4.2 ypg, sophomore Terrence Whitehead, 30-127 yards, one touchdown, 4.2 ypg and red shirt freshman Chris Vincent, 28-126 yards, 4.5 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 18 catches for 326 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 last week when Parker turned his ankle, Williams responded with five catches for 139 yards and three touchdowns. For the season Williams has 15 catches for 303 yards and three 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 camp. 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, junior Ryan Loftin, 6-4, 244 and sophomore Nate LiaBraaten, 6-4, 245.
"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 big Mike DeLagrange, 6-6, 328 are big and experienced.
Defensively, starting defensive tackle/defensive end junior Igor Oshansky, 6-6, 305, was unavailable because of off-season surgery but came back strongly during fall camp and along with, the Ducks appear to be the strongest and biggest they have ever been on the defensive line at Oregon. 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 215 total yards in three games or a 71.7 ypg average.
Haloti Ngata, 6-4, 339 was injured in the Mississippi State game with a torn ACL in his left knee. Initially it was thought he could be lost for the season but there is indication that he may return to action later in the season.
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 has 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 leads the team in tackles with 15 while Trucks has 11.
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 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 Justin Phinisee, 5-10, 195, 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.
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 16 of 16 in extra points made and is 3 of 4 in his field goals. He is 3-for-3 in career field goals longer than 50 yards. Punting duties is handled by freshman Paul Martinez.
The Ducks know they have much to prove to the football world and are eager to reclaim the Pac-10 title they won in 2001. The sour taste of last season is a stimulus to approach the season as a cohesive team. Time will tell just how settled the considerable talent on the team has become and how determined they are to return to the elite of Division I football. The first three games have resulted in wins and many questions seemed to have been answered last week about the Ducks. Oregon scored 73 points but have given up 57 points. Yet, when it came time to step up and produce in the most important game of the first three, in a conference game on the road at Arizona, Oregon exploded for 48 points and gave up just 10.
Obviously, the Michigan game is the biggest of the season so far. One element that has been missing or at least toned down for sometime from the Autzen Stadium experience is a sense of electricity flowing through the stands in fan enthusiasm. If one could predict a certainty about the Oregon-Michigan game next Saturday it is that the Oregon faithful who have seemed to be completely re-energized because of the win at Arizona will be on hand at full intensity to support their team.
Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. (Pacific Time) and will be carried on live on ABC.
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