Questions Asked, Questions Answered

The Oregon Ducks opened their 2002 season with a 36-13 win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Saturday afternoon in front of the largest crowd ever to attend a football game in the state of Oregon. The game was carried to a national television audience and went a long way to answer many questions about a team looking to capture the Pac-10 crown for the third straight year. A crowd of 56,386 was in attendance.

The questions about a new starting quarterback, a pair of new corner backs and the play of several new comers to the program were quickly answered as the Ducks took early control of the game and started the new season off with a win. On the first drive of the game, junior quarterback Jason Fife led the offense on a sustained, blue collar type drive that consisted of 15 plays, going 80 yards and lasting over six minutes before Fife scored on a five yard run.

"The fact that we were able to control the line of scrimmage and control the tempo of the game, and continue to drive down field, that was just huge," said Fife.

Headed into the contest the obvious questions regarding how Fife would compare with former Duck quarterback Joey Harrington were asked. How would Fife match up with a player who was a first round NFL draft pick and Pac-10 Offensive Player of the year last year? For an opening game Fife fared very well and drew praises from his coach Mike Bellotti.

"I'm very impressed with the debut of Jason Fife," said Bellotti. "He did everything we could ask of him."

Fife's debut indeed was impressive. He threw the ball well, made good decisions and showed a talent for being able to scramble and run. Fife ended the day passing 14 for 24 totaling 166 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Fife also ran for 28 yards on six carries and had one touchdown run. Fife showed good judgement and smart play on several occasions when he either scrambled out of danger or threw the ball away. One play in particular stood out in the third quarter when a field goal attempt by Oregon kicker Jared Siegel was blocked by Mississippi State's Michael Gholar on the MSU 31-yard line. The ball squirted up into the air and Fife caught the ball near midfield. Had Fife been tackled the Bulldogs would have taken possession in very good field position, but Fife quickly tossed the ball harmlessly down field for an incomplete pass. The ball turned over to MSU at their own 31-yardline instead of midfield.

"He made some crucial scrambles and first downs either design quarterback runs or just scrambles where he bought some time," said Bellotti. "He made some good decisions on when to throw the ball away."

Oregon intended to run the ball against Mississippi State to take advantage of the skills of junior running back Onterrio Smith, and also to take some of the pressure off Fife. Smith did his part by carrying the ball 28 times for 124 yards of rushing. Smith also showed his blocking abilities in protecting Fife on passing plays. Fife threw three touchdown passes, two of the passes to junior tight end George Wrighster and one to junior wide receiver Samie Parker. One of Wrighster's catches and run resulting in a touchdown ended as the 6-4, 250 pound Wrighster vaulted over a would-be tackler into the end zone. The play drew a loud response from the 56,000 fans at Autzen.

"I love George," said Fife laughingly when asked about Wrighster's play.

Wrighster ended the game with four catches for 46 yards and two touchdowns. Parker was the leading receiver for the afternoon with four catches for 51 yards and one touchdown. Senior wide receiver Keenan Howry did not start the game but did manage to catch two passes and keep a streak alive. Howry has caught at least one pass in 35 straight games. The other senior wide receiver Jason Willis had three catches for 47 yards.

The Ducks were well in control of the contest by the end of the first period with a 14-0 lead and at halftime led 27-7. With the type of cushion the lead gave Oregon, many players on the Ducks roster had a chance to see action. Senior tailback Allan Amundson had seven carries for 29 yards and freshman tailback Terrance Whitehead had 10 carries for 36 yards. Coach Bellotti after the game described Whitehead, 5-10, 202 as a strong and powerful runner.

"(Whitehead) did a great job carrying the football," remarked Bellotti.

Bellotti mentioned after the game that the coaching staff pulled Smith off the field because the staff wanted to see how the back ups would perform in game situations.

"He (Smith) could have played longer but we wanted to see the other guys behind him get some reps," said Bellotti. "We are going to keep him fresh throughout the entire season."

Other questions that were answered by the Ducks' performance against MSU were the play of the new starting corner backs. Junior Steven Moore responded by deflecting three passes and freshman Aaron Gipson had one tackle and assisted on three more tackles. One of the assists was a tackle-for-loss. Bellotti mentioned that Gipson played very well and Bellotti was impressed because Gipson is a true freshman.

"In front of 56,000 people he (Gipson) plays nearly the entire game and does a great job," said Bellotti.

Sophomore Charles Favroth also was a strong contributor at corner back. Favroth ended up with a pass deflection. MSU was operating with redshirt freshman quarterback Kyle York who made his first start as a college quarterback. York was pressed into action resulting from the suspension of starter Kevin Fant. Fant was suspended due to a self-reported NCAA violation. York accounted for 201 of MSU's entire 223 yards of offense. Oregon freshman Marcus Binns also contributed with an interception. Junior Keith Lewis also recorded an interception for the Ducks.

The Ducks defensive game plan was stop the run and Oregon was successful as the Duck defense allowed only 41 yards of rushing on 24 carries. Oregon was more than happy to take their chances defending the pass against MSU. The Bulldogs were only able to muster 11 yards of rushing in the first half. Moore believes Oregon's new secondary answered the questions posed prior to the season asking if departing seniors Rashad Bauman and Steve Smith could be replaced.

"We (the secondary) showed people we can play," said Moore. "We're pretty good."

One area Bellotti was not happy about in the Ducks performance was penalties. Particularly, Bellotti was unhappy about dead-ball penalties.

"I'm not happy with penalties, especially with penalties that occur after the whistle," remarked Bellotti. "Those to me are not acceptable."

Overall Oregon's headman was pleased and happy with his team's performance. He thought the defensive line played very well stopping MSU's running game, but he does think the pass rush could improve. Bellotti also thought the pivotal questions regarding quarterback and corner backs have been answered very satisfactorily for the Ducks and their fans. In one phase of the team's play, the running game, Bellotti thinks the team is ahead of where they were at last year. Most significantly though, Bellotti thinks he has answered his own questions.

"We answered a lot of questions about whether or not we could block, whether or not could tackle, whether or not we could cover," said Bellotti.

Judging by attitude of the largest assemblage of Duck fans at one game departing Autzen Stadium Saturday evening, the answers to the questions are very positive.

Grant Gibson contributed to this story.

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