Heroic rally was not quite enough

San Diego, Calif. -- In the week that saw the end of Monday Night Football on ABC, the Oregon Ducks made a Brett Favre-type MNF comeback only to come up a few inches short. With 33 seconds left to go Oregon quarterback Brady Leaf made his only mistake of the night when he threw an interception to seal the Oregon Ducks' fate at the 28th Pacific Life Holiday Bowl against Oklahoma, losing 17-14.

Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson tries to stick the ball over the goal line while running against the Oregon defense in the fourth quarter of the Holiday Bowl Thursday Dec. 29, 2005 in San Diego. The ball was taken away by an Oregon defender and ruled a fumble. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

"Obviously, we're very proud. I was sad to lose, but we played hard in the (fourth) quarter," said Oregon's head coach Mike Bellotti. "We responded and it gave us a chance to win. Our defense played well – people stepped up. Oklahoma's running game hurt us very much…Oklahoma is a quality football program – one of the top teams in the nation."

Leaf's interception stopped a drive that could have possibly tied or won the game but when Oklahoma's Clint Ingram came down with the ball it meant the Ducks lost. Oregon played behind all the second half and at one point it looked like the Ducks had overstepped their own ambitious quest of being considered one of the nation's elite football programs. The Sooners were able to pound out twice as many yards in the third quarter and the Ducks looked tired and bewildered.

While the Ducks led at halftime 7-3, the Sooners took control of the game in the third quarter scoring two touchdowns of 53 and 74 yards. Had it not been for a great defensive play at the start of the fourth quarter, Oregon's season of 10 wins may have looked like a fluke. Leading 17-7 going into the fourth quarter, the Sooners took the ball to the Oregon 2-yard line when Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson attempted to dive into the end zone. Oregon's Anthony Trucks managed to strip the ball away from Peterson and instead of building a nearly insurmountable 24-7 lead, the ball was turned over. Oregon was not able to capitalize on the turn over, but the fact that the Ducks prevented Oklahoma scoring at will gave Oregon hope.

"I yelled several times that we needed to strip the ball and I think Anthony (Trucks) did it perfectly, he came up with the ball, I was worried he didn't show the officials long enough," said Bellotti about Trucks take away early in the fourth quarter. "That play certainly gave us the momentum on both sides of the ball."

Oregon had started Dennis Dixon at quarterback. Dixon led the initial scoring drive in the first half that resulted in a Demetrius Williams 5-yard run and a 7-3 lead that extended through halftime. However, Dixon alternated with fellow quarterback Leaf in what appeared to be a mismatching rhythm that kept Oregon from moving the ball on offense. Oregon had scripted in their plan that Dixon and Leaf would alternate and the Ducks kept to their plan. Leaf came in the fourth quarter and in a drive that last 13 plays covering 78 yards, he found tight end Tim Day for a touchdown and pumped new life into the Ducks season. Trailing 17-14, the Ducks had momentum and Oklahoma's ensuing drive lasted three plays before they were forced to punt and gave the Ducks the ball on Oregon's 22 with one timeout and 3:04 left in the game. Aided by a 37-yard gain by running back Terrence Whitehead, the Ducks had the ball Oklahoma's 19-yard line with just over 30 seconds left in the game and well within Paul Martinez's range to tie the game. The Ducks however chose to go for the win and that is when Leaf, who ended up going 14-for-24, 136 yards, and one touchdown, threw his lone interception with 33 ticks on the clock.

"This was the biggest play that I've ever made in any sport," said Ingram of his interception. "I didn't hear the call for the blitz, so I just stuck with No. 2 (defensive set) and was able to make the play on the ball."

Dixon finished the game going 11-for-19, 107 yards and a touchdown. Oklahoma's Rhett Bomar finished up 17-for-30, 220 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Whitehead was Oregon's leading rusher with 43 yards on 12 carries and also had six receptions for 83 yards. Peterson was the games leading rusher with 84 yards on 23 carries. Malcolm Kelly led Oklahoma with seven receptions for 79 yards while Juagu Iglesias had five grabs for 85 yards. J.D. Runnels had the touchdown reception for 17 yards, which was his only catch of the day. James Finley led Oregon receivers with nine catches for 67 yards.

Defensively, Oregon lost both starting tackles to minor injuries. Haloti Ngata and Matt Toeaina were knocked out of action but Bellotti did not have a complete medical report as to their condition, however he did mention that Cole Linehan and David Faaeteete did have good games coming in off the bench in relief.

While the loss may have been bitter to take, it could have been very disheartening had the Ducks not made such a furious comeback. Oregon will lose 13 seniors off this squad and had the season ended on a the low note of being blown out of a game after achieving the lofty ranking of No. 5 in the country, the results of losing could be much worse.

"We're a very young team," said Bellotti of his team. "We had 13 seniors play tonight and they're very valuable seniors. If you lose a game like this, it is like fuel to the fire and helps for the blue print in the spring. This will be an easier summer, because we already have a game plan for the fall."

Oregon will now have a all off-season to fine tune this team that has gained a tremendous amount of experience and depth. One of the obvious issues that will need to be resolved is who will be the starting quarterback and will the Ducks look to play that individual solely in the position. Overall the Ducks will have few weaknesses next season and that is a very positive aspect. A year ago this team seemed to be in shambles with a humiliating 5-6 record. This year, the Ducks finish the year with a 10-2 record and a keen eye on the future.

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