Yes, life can be fickle. And, as fans have come to find out this season, so can Oregon football. The Ducks go from 11-1 and a No. 2 national ranking in 2001, to a 7-6 record in 2002 losing their last six of seven games, to this year where the Ducks started the season 4-0 including a momentous win over Michigan and garnering a No. 10 national ranking, to then losing their next three games against Washington State, Utah and Arizona State on consecutive weekends. And, perhaps the losing wouldn't have been so bad on its own if the Ducks had simply had the ball not bounce their way while losing proudly. But, the fact is the Ducks lost 17-13 at Utah, and were blown out against Washington State 55-16 and at Arizona State 59-14 after being thoroughly dominated in every facet of the game. These two Pac-10 Conference games really do typify exactly how much Oregon is suffering. The Washington State debacle represents the third worst defeat in Autzen Stadium history dating back to when the stadium opened in 1967. Only the 1976 and 1977 shutouts by USC, 0-53, and Washington, 0-54, are more notable. Furthermore, the 45 points of losing margin handed to Oregon by Arizona State this year represents the worst ever by a Mike Bellotti coached team spanning nine seasons. Only the 1996 Cotton Bowl defeat, 6-38, to Colorado and the 1998 defeat to Arizona, 3-38, come close. After that, a Bellotti coached Oregon team never lost by a margin of more than 28 points. In fact, prior to this year, and over the last 29 losses during the Bellotti tenure, the average losing margin has been just 12.6 points per game. Over the three losses sustained so far this year the average losing margin has been 29.3 points per game. Take away the Utah game, and it's been an average losing margin of 42 points per game.
How does this happen? Is voodoo involved or some other mystic art not clearly explained? Much has been written by the media and others on this subject over the last two weeks and through Oregon's bye weekend. Enquiring minds want to know. And just about every possibility has been served up: injuries (nine injuries to members of the Duck traveling squad), youth (only seven starting seniors with 10 underclassmen and four newcomer/transfers playing on the offensive and defensive platoons), coaching mistakes (where are those halftime adjustments? And, why isn't the team playing with more verve and fire? Why is the play calling so predictable?), mental lapses (what's this turnover margin where the Ducks rank No. 99 nationally, dead last in the Pac-10 Conference?), bad breaks, lack of team leaders, lack of talent, and more.
I'm wearing a bald spot on the back of my head lying down on the shrink's divan trying to figure out this schizophrenic team and am still at a loss to strike on a definitive answer. Maybe there is no easily understood answer as there was during the Rich Stubler years, Oregon's defensive coordinator who subscribed to the "Edge" defense while leading the team to 6-5 and 7-5 seasons in 1996 and 1997, equaling the lowest tide during the Bellotti years. Perhaps Oregon's problems this year are simply a combination of everything going wrong that can go wrong at the wrong time. The Perfect Storm. Regardless, there are two certainties. One, Oregon's team performance during its in-conference losses this season are totally uncharacteristic of the program over the last 10 years and while Bellotti has been coach, particularly on offense. And two, if the Ducks continue to play this way, they won't win another game this year, not with Stanford, Washington, California, UCLA and Oregon State on deck.
What's even more eerie is that while the Ducks are approaching this pivotal point in their season, following all their soul searching during the bye week, who should come to town? None other than Stanford. This must be Halloween.
Strangely enough, other than USC, Stanford has had more success against the Ducks than any other Pac-10 Conference team. They lead the lifetime series dating back to 1900, 43-22-1. Bellotti-coached teams have recorded the fewest conference wins and the most conference losses against Stanford. During this same period Stanford has only managed two eight-win or more seasons and four winning seasons. Start playing that Twilight Zone music and rewind the tapes. Who can forget October 20, 2001 as the Ducks surrendered 21 points to Stanford in the fourth quarter on two blocked punts, a recovered pooch punt and an interception to finally lose 42-49, their only loss of the season? Or how about October 12, 1996 when the Ducks watched a 10-point lead evaporate in the final eight minutes of the fourth quarter sending the game into overtime? That game was decided in Stanford's favor 24-27 after Eugene-native Kailee Wong stripped the ball loose from Oregon quarterback Tony Grazani during the Duck's overtime possession. On September 23, 1995 Stanford handed Oregon one of three losses the Ducks would receive all season, including Oregon's loss in the Cotton Bowl. Perhaps even more amazing was September 23, 1989 when the Ducks were leading Stanford 17-0 with less than eight minutes remaining in the game. You guessed it - Oregon lost 17-18.
All I can say is that Oregon better not hope to win a squeaker against Stanford. When the Ducks do beat the Cardinal it is by large margins such as last year's drubbing 41-14, or Oregon's 63-28 win in 1998 or the 55-21 win in 1994, or the 31-0 shutout in 1990. All other recent years the Ducks either loss or didn't play Stanford. If Oregon is able to get by Stanford it might spell exactly the kind of medicine that Ducks need to get well and get back on track to achieve another consecutive winning season. Another winning season will equal a decade of winning seasons, unprecedented in over 100 years of Oregon football.
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