First and long

Frustratingly fundamental falters have been the one constant for the 2004 edition of the Fighting Duck football team. Penalties, dropped passes, special teams misplays – the basic building blocks of the game - for all the athleticism, for all the strategy… basic lapses in execution have short-circuited all of the Duck's best intentions. Missed/blocked field goals in Norman allowed that game a different tenor. A felony violation of the fundamental "turnover" rule resulted in the loss to Indiana.

BERKELEY, CA - NOVEMBER 6: Chris Manderino #27of the California Golden Bears runs against Charles Favrroth #11 of the Oregon Ducks at Memorial Stadium on November 6, 2004 in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Don't drop a couple of wide-open passes; don't miss the extra point – and the No. 4 team in the country, California is in third place in the conference.

California deserves to be the No. 4 team in the country – there aren't many teams in the nation that will keep up with the Bears most occasions. Oregon is one of those teams. So is Oklahoma, and certainly USC. Cruel sunlight of the next day, though, there is absolutely no other way to be a top tier team than to beat a top tier team. When fundamental plays are made against lesser opponents, fundamental mistakes generally don't beat you when you play the highly regarded challengers. The corollary of that has the Ducks haunted today.

Any armchair coaches can jump on their soapbox and authoritatively point out how fundamental mistakes are keys. It's a cliché – and like most cliché, there is that kernel of truth, which allows relevance to nearly every circumstance. Fundamental mistakes are too frequently viewed as a lack of desire or discipline, taking on the connotation of a character flaw. They surely can be born that way, but often they ripen in a flicker of thought – a "don't drop it" type of internal message as the play is transpiring. This is the insidious nature of "fundamental" – when there is too much time, i.e., the play is too open – there is too much a lack of information, allowing for that momentary curse to raise its voice. A college football player's mind is not an uncluttered space, and the sudden "quiet" of a routine play is in itself a distraction.

When all hell is breaking loose and the play is very much being challenged at every aspect… there is no time for such internal conversations. At once, the play is there to be made and it often is made. That's how athletes grow-up as athletes.

Yes, Keith Allen's drop was heartbreaking. But it was nothing compared to the heartache we still would be suffering had Joey Harrington's late fourth quarter fumble in the 2001 Civil War bounced just six inches higher, which would have allowed a Beaver defensive lineman to pick it up in stride for a certain touchdown. The point being – all players, every single motherlovin' one of ‘em… has made that kind of mistake.

One vivid recollection of the 2001 Holiday Bowl was how Coach Bellotti admonished his team to "play one step away from the edge." That they did the next day versus Texas, and then versus all comers in 2001-02. 2K4's version of the Ducks hasn't learned how to do this, and I'll submit it is the best means of moving beyond the obstruction of fundamental errors to the point the outcome of the game resides in the athleticism of the players. I like the Ducks odds in that type a match-up. They are big, they are fast, they are physical, and they do a lot of things right, except get out of their own way.

A season can chose from a number of reflections, and this one reminds me a bit of the momentary panic you feel when you lose your car in the mall parking lot. You know where it is, but that disorientation of having your first expectation proved wrong often opens the door for everything else to go wrong in an increasingly irritating sequence. Pretty soon the whole damn day is shot. A simplistic point, I'll allow – but I would give a pretty sum to gaze into a crystal ball that would allow me to see how this season would have progressed had the illegal block in the back penalty not been called during Kenny Washington's return to open the season. It hasn't been "Dude, Where's My Car" – that would be the Huskies – but it has been "Can't Seem to Find What I'm Looking For" since that very moment.

In no way am I writing this as an epitaph. It is not a leap of faith to think this team will win its remaining two conference games. With a bit of luck, an attractive bowl/opponent combination can fall into place and this group will be able to paint a truer picture of their talents than does a 5-4 record. That record, this season, these players…does bring back to mind the lost car, the parking lot and the inevitable thought one has when in that predicament – we surely have turned this corner before.

A Change of Pace

Many times you've heard about teams that play "basketball on grass" or "a track meet with yard markers" to describe a high-octane, 50 passes a night offense. I won't make any profound decision about the wisdom of every-night-of-the-week college football – it is a much larger debate than this point is worth posing. That said, last Thursday's game between Memphis and Louisville could only be described as Halloween on grass… and you can take that however you like. Here are some of the telling statistics: 63 combined first downs, 1,202 total yards (599 to 603), a combined 21-30 on third down conversions, 10 lead changes and 105 points. Who won? Like I'm gonna ruin the point by telling you….

Which gives me a great segue….

While not quite of the same cloth, last week's conference slate provided the closest match-ups of the season. Arizona State/Stanford and UCLA/Washington State, as well as the Oregon/California games were all decided in the final seconds. Even in Corvallis, Oregon State kept within striking distance of USC. Who would have imagined that the Washington/Arizona game would provide the weekend's largest victory margin – 10? Each week, look for "Out of the Pac" – a recap of the previous Saturday's games and a preview of this coming weekend's slate.

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