Keep Down the Operator Errors

Hoping to salvage their season with a win in the 110th Civil War against the Oregon State Beavers on Friday, the Oregon Ducks are seeking ways this week to snap a two-game losing streak. The Ducks were buried 37-10 last Saturday against Arizona but if a way can be found to avoid turnovers by the offense and plugging up a shattered run defense the Ducks may have a chance.

Calling most of the turnovers a result of "operator error," Oregon's head coach Mike Bellotti indicated that the costly turnovers the Ducks have given up were a result of wrong decisions and inaccurate throws. Starting quarterback Dennis Dixon has thrown 13 interceptions this season while tossing 11 touchdown passes. Significantly, Dixon has not thrown a touchdown pass since the Portland State game on October 28th, and in the last three games he has been picked off six times but no touchdowns. Some may point out that the spread offense is partially responsible for the high turnover rate, but Bellotti isn't buying it.

"We talk about turnovers everyday," indicated Bellotti at his weekly media conference on Tuesday. "We are in somewhat of a high-risk offense but I don't agree that is an excuse for the number of turnovers that we've had."

Bellotti reported that there is an intense competition this week in practice between Dixon and back up Brady Leaf for the starting job on Friday against the Beavers. The head coach called Monday's practice the "best of the season" and expects the Tuesday rehearsal to be even better. One piece of good news for the passing game is that two wide receivers, senior James Finley and sophomore Jaison Williams are practicing and it is possible another receiver, Kyle Weatherspoon may play. If Weatherspoon plays that will mean he burns up his final year of eligibility. He has not appeared in any game this season because of academic issues.

Another area of intense competition on offense is at right tackle. Last week Mark Lewis started in place of Geoff Schwartz. Schwartz had been the starter at the spot for over two years and coaches have indicated that they wanted to see a more aggressive Schwartz on the field. They also say that Lewis has earned the right to start because of his performance in practice. Back up Jacob Hucko is still available if the opportunity arises. Bellotti indicated no decision would be made until Thursday (day before the game) as to whom will be the starting right tackle.

Oregon also hopes that another area that has suddenly become a liability -- punt returns can be mended. Last week, two punts were fumbled giving Arizona excellent field position inside the 20-yard line and both plays led to Wildcat scores. So far this season, three players have been used returning punts, Jeremiah Johnson, Patrick Chung and Andiel Brown. All have fumbled punts or made risky decision fielding the ball. Chung did manage to return his first punt return ever for a touchdown against Washington, but every since then fans have shuttered when the other team lines up to punt the ball away.

"We'll continue to evaluate that situation looking to improve the technique involved and the decision making process as both are crucial," indicated Bellotti of the punt return play. "It would be nice to have a sense of competence going into the last couple game of the season."

On the other side of the ball the Oregon run defense has been abysmal. In eight of the 11 games played this year, opposing running backs have rushed for over 100 yards and that's not counting UCLA's Chris Markey who had a net 97 yards. Last week Arizona's Chris Henry had a career best of 191 yards net rushing and two touchdowns.

Ironically, perhaps the best way for the Ducks to stop the bleeding in giving up rushing yards is to stop turning the ball over on offense. While the Ducks have been beaten up along the defensive front and could use a big, stout player like Haloti Ngata, Igor Olshansky or Junior Siavii, having to continually comeback onto the field because of a turnover has to be trying for any defensive unit.

Still though, while the Ducks have been very good stopping other teams' passing attacks, they must find some way of stopping Oregon State's running game if they want any chance of winning the game. Bellotti feels the keys to competing with Oregon State is stopping the Beavers' running attack and not allow any explosion plays.

The Oregon headman thinks OSU's Matt Moore has "turned the corner" and has become one of the top signal callers in the conference.

One thing that may have slipped out during the media conference was when Bellotti indicated that next season with Jackie Bates coming back, the Duck secondary would be a very solid unit. Bates was injured during the Fresno State game but was suspended from the team later in the season for conduct detrimental to the team. No further explanation was given for Bates suspension and Bellotti would only say he would reconsider Bates' future with the team at the end of the season. Were Bellotti's comments in Tuesday's media conference an indication that the Head Coach has made a decision on Bates' fate with the Ducks?

"It means that basically if he meets the criteria I've set forth, he can be reinstated," responded Bellotti to the question of if Bates is back in the fold.

An interesting note to the media conference was a discussion about the number of players on the Oregon roster that have NFL lineage. Currently the Ducks have five players on the roster whose fathers played in the NFL. Included are Jairus Byrd (Gil Byrd, DB - San Diego), Erik Elshire (Neil Elshire, DE - Minnesota), Dexter Manley II (Dexter Manley, DE - Washington), Matthew Harper (Willie Harper, CB - San Francisco) and J.D. Nelson (Darrin Nelson, RB, Minnesota and San Diego). Among current Oregon recruits that are verbal commitments are Casey Matthews (Clay Matthews, LB - Atlanta and Cleveland) and Tonio Celotto (Mario Celotto, LB - Oakland). Bellotti mentioned in response to a question about J.D. Nelson that recruiting son of a former NFL player has been an interesting experience.

"We have several children of former NFL football players on our team right now," observed Bellotti. "They (the players) are for the most part some of the better players that we have. It was interesting going through the home visits and that type of thing it wasn't that difficult because the parents were open to their sons playing at the highest level of football and to get a good education."

Most of the NFL sons have been around the game a great deal as they have seen their fathers play. They are also familiar with things like how to use the weight room, watching game film with a concerning eye and how to prepare for a game.

"I think they have an understanding of the game, understanding of coaching and how to be coachable," said Bellotti of players with NFL lineage. "They've been around that aspect all of their lives."

The Civil War is being played this week on Friday, taking advantage of the Thanksgiving holiday and will be televised on FSN nationally. It is a chance for the Ducks to rebound from what may easily be called the worst performance of the year last Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

Prospects do not look good for that happening because over the last two games the Ducks have obviously become less confident and more tentative in what they want to accomplished. The season has gone from great expectations on where the Ducks fit on the national stage to one of just holding on to finish out the season. Dixon looks nothing like the quarterback of September that was so ideally suited for the Oregon offense.

If Bellotti and his staff can figure out some solutions for this downward spiral then it should be considered one of the best coaching accomplishments of Bellotti's tenure. If not, then it may be a long wait for Oregon football to have some success.

Kickoff for Friday's game is scheduled for 12:30 p.m.

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