Ducks' season turned on one game

While the Gophers took a turn for the worse with their loss to Michigan, Oregon is looking back at one of its games as a turning point in the Ducks' season. The Gophers and Ducks battle Dec. 31 in the Sun Bowl.

Oregon was looking for a spark, a big play, a season-turning moment.

After four defeats in a five-game stretch, it appeared the Ducks were going nowhere fast despite a 4-0 start, including a 31-27 victory over a heralded Michigan squad in Eugene.

How quickly the Ducks went from being a top-10 squad to almost being just another bust.

Following a 59-14 embarrassing loss to Arizona State on Oct. 10, the Ducks responded with a 35-0 shutout of Stanford.

But then came a 42-10 defeat to rival Washington.

Trouble was brewing.

"We were a team still looking for a spark, looking for confidence, and looking for trust and confidence that somebody would make some plays," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti told the Eugene Register-Guard.

The moment came in a 21-17 come-from-behind victory over California on Nov. 8.

Trailing 17-8 in the fourth quarter, QB Kellen Clemens connected with tight end Tim Day for what appeared to be a short gain, but turned out to be a 31-yard touchdown to narrow the gap to 17-14 with 4:19 remaining.

"It was something we hadn't done in so long," Clemens told the Register-Guard.

"We made a play in the fourth quarter when we were down by 10 that we absolutely had to make. We put points on the board, and there was still 4:19 left. What it did for our confidence as an offense is unbelievable. I don't think there was a person on the offensive unit who doubted, if we got the ball back, whether or not we were going to score (again)."

The Ducks did score again, won, and then beat UCLA and Oregon State to earn a berth to the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl against Minnesota.

BY THE NUMBERS: 156.7 — The difference in the average rushing totals between Minnesota (293.2) and Oregon (136.5). The Ducks have plenty of team speed, but not one great threat at tailback, while the Gophers have an embarrassment of riches in the backfield. The team that runs better usually wins ... not great news for the Ducks.

GAME OF THE YEAR: A 21-17 win over Cal on Nov. 8 saved the season, but, clearly, the game of the year was the 31-27 victory over then-No. 3 Michigan on Sept. 20. The Wolverines' Heisman Trophy finalist Chris Perry was held to 26 yards and Michigan actually ended up in negative rushing numbers (minus 3) for the afternoon. Michigan challenged in the fourth quarter, but the Ducks got a fumble recovery in the end zone after a blocked punt to make it 31-21. The Wolverines got a touchdown pass with 2:18 left, but couldn't get closer than the final margin.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: DL Igor Olshansky vs. Minnesota's offensive line — Olshansky is a 300-pounder who can play the end or the tackle position. He's the focal point of a defensive line that can be very good against the run (see the Michigan game), and that aspect of the defense will go a long way toward dictating how the game against the Gophers goes.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You look at (Minnesota's) stats and it's incredible. They shredded Michigan, and Michigan's pretty good." — Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, in the Eugene Register-Guard.

BOWL SCENARIO: Oregon vs. Minnesota, Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas, Dec. 31 — It's a rematch of the 1999 Sun Bowl, which the Ducks won 24-21. This time around, it's a very interesting matchup of a team that runs the ball as well as any team in the nation (Minnesota) against a defense that prides itself in stopping the run above all else. The Ducks allow only 95.9 rushing yards per game, 12th-best in the nation, and figure to dare Gophers QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq to beat them with the pass.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Kellen Clemens — Solidified himself as the starting quarterback late in the season, leading a fourth-quarter comeback against Cal and then directing wins over UCLA and Oregon State. He has six touchdown passes and only one interception in his last nine quarters.

LB Kevin Mitchell — Voted the team's most outstanding player, Mitchell is a superb sideline-to-sideline linebacker who made a team-high 103 tackles.

PRO POTENTIAL: LB Kevin Mitchell — He began the year as a 220-pound middle linebacker and was down to 200 by the Civil War. With good speed and instincts, might he end up at a safety position on the next level?

WR Samie Parker — He's only 5-11, but the guy is a blazer. Every NFL team has room for someone like that.

INJURY IMPACT: Looking ahead to next season, the Ducks will bring back two key players who missed all (or nearly all) of the season. WR Keith Allen, who suffered a torn ACL in fall camp, will help fill the void left by Samie Parker. DT Haloti Ngata, who suffered a knee injury in the first quarter of the opener against Mississippi State, will be back to help anchor the defensive line. ... The Ducks played all season without starting senior guard Joey Forster, who suffered an ACL injury in camp.

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