23-Minute Turn Around

When a team has been mired in the kind of slump Oregon has of late, sometimes the only remedy is a jolt to the system—even it's more electronic than athletic. <br><br> (PHOTO LEFT) Oregon's Terrence Whitehead (24) celebrates with Nick Steitz, center, and Ryan Loftin (48) after his winning touchdown against California in the final minute of the game in Eugene, Ore., Saturday Nov. 8, 2003. Oregon beat California 21-17. (AP Photo/Greg Wahl-Stephens)

Before the lights at Autzen Stadium suddenly went dark for 23 minutes on Saturday night, Oregon seemed to be letting another close game give way to a late scoring fest by their opponent. Maybe it wouldn't have been the 42-10 thumping the Ducks suffered last week against Washington after a 10-7 halftime lead gave way to a 35-point Husky second-half blitz. Or a 59-14 drubbing in Tempe after a 10-point third quarter deficit became 45. But Cal was taking command, as seen by the 17-7 lead they took shortly after the blackout completed.

Still, something changed during those 23 minutes. A different Oregon team emerged for the final 14:40 of Saturday night's game. And maybe, just maybe, the stadium's mainframe wasn't the only unit that got re-booted.

"I knew it was going to be a special fourth quarter when the lights went out," coach Bellotti said afterward.

After initially mulling around the field and sidelines during the blackout while Jared Seigel booted a few practice kicks, Oregon followed Cal's lead and headed for the locker room. Head coach Mike Bellotti is not necessarily one for Knute Rockne-esque speeches, his strength instead being a level-headedness that keeps his team on an even keel. Yet it's clear that the chance for Oregon to regroup and talk over the fourth quarter that remained was vital. And whatever Bellotti said, it woke up a team that had slumbered for too long in the waning minutes of football games.

"It was like another halftime," Bellotti continued. "I wasn't going to come in to start with because I didn't want to take them out of the environment out there, but they said it could be up to 20 minutes or more so we went back inside. We talked about focus, we talked about talking about football -- visualizing the plays we were going to make, winning the fourth quarter to win the football game."

In its four losses this season, Oregon had been outscored 58-0 in the final quarter. Even in its four wins prior to Cal, the Ducks had been outscored 43-21. Somehow, as they waited for the lights to come back on in that locker room late Saturday night, Bellotti convinced his young team that they could accomplish what had not been done since a win at UCLA last season: coming from behind to win the game.

So will this break from more than a year of late-game collapses? Of course the next two games will provide the real answer.

But it wouldn't be the first time Oregon has turned around its fortunes rather abruptly. In 1996—also after a lopsided defeat to Washington—Oregon rebounded with three wins to salvage a winning season. In 1999, his team struggling at 3-3, Joey Harrington replaced starter A.J. Feeley and rallied the Ducks to a win against Arizona (his first of many comebacks). This began a 6-game win streak that ended with a Sun Bowl victory over Minnesota. And of course there's 1994, when the team started 1-2 with losses to mediocre Hawaii and Utah before suddenly rocketing to a 9-3 regular season culminating in their first Rose Bowl in 37 years.

So now the onus is on Oregon to keep up its momentum. "This is the type of thing you can build on," the coach concludes. "After last week [against Washington] we were very frustrated with our performance. I think we proved we could do it when we need to."

And the precedent is there: Since taking over head coaching duties in 1995, Bellotti's teams have—at least prior to last year—been especially potent in November. And while on paper UCLA and Oregon State may be favorites, each is vulnerable.

The Bruins won five straight earlier this year, including an impressive 46-16 torching against Washington in which the team actually trailed by 9 points at halftime. But since then Karl Dorrell's team has lost two in a row, including a 31-13 drubbing last week at Washington State.

Oregon State has been a good team for most of this season, thanks to a strong defense and running game. Yet Oregon is better equipped to stop the run than the pass, and if the Beavers can be forced to win the game on the arm of quarterback Derek Anderson, the Ducks may be able to pull off the win.

And if they do win their final two games to achieve what once this year seemed like a wholly unlikely 8-4 regular season record, think back to those 23 minutes when the game stopped, and a different team came running out of the Autzen tunnel after ward: A team that looks just as good in the fourth quarter as it does in the first.

Brian Libby is a freelance writer and photographer living in Portland. He also writes for the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Salon and Willamette Week.

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