Have Fun and Relax

GameDay is coming to town on Saturday and Mike Bellotti is encouraging his team to enjoy the experience, as the Ducks prepare to take on the California Bears at Autzen Stadium. This is the third time in 10 years that Oregon has been involved in GameDay and Bellotti wants his team to relax and play well as the eyes of the football nation are on the Ducks and Bears.

"GameDay coming to your town is the best thing in the world to happen," said Bellotti of the Saturday morning ESPN program. "In this day and age it is the mark of having arrived."

ESPN and the University of Oregon announced yesterday that ESPN College GameDay, featuring Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler would come to Eugene and broadcast live prior to the start of the Oregon-California game. GameDay was last in Eugene during the 2000 season when Oregon beat UCLA. Oregon made its first appearance on the program in 1998 at the Rose Bowl also against the Bruins.

Ironically, an important part of the 2000 Oregon team was former Offensive Coordinator Jeff Tedford, now the Bear's Head Coach.

Bellotti indicated that he has told his team to enjoy the atmosphere that GameDay creates and that the experience is good for the players, families and fans as it puts the team in the national spotlight.

However, Tedford and his team would love nothing more than to spoil things by beating the Ducks at Autzen, something the Bears haven't done since 1987. Even though Cal holds a 37-30-2 advantage over Oregon, over the last 10 years the Ducks have won eight of 10. However, Oregon was embarrassed last season and would love to avenge that loss to the Bears. Last year, Oregon was pounded at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley as the Bears were faster at every position on every play and won 45-24. California capitalized on four Oregon turnovers and that foretold a problem the Ducks would have all year long -- holding onto the ball.

This season Cal comes into Autzen Stadium ranked No. 6 in the nation and like the 11th ranked Ducks are undefeated with a 4-0 record. Last week the Bears shellacked Arizona 45-27 while Oregon recovered from a near disastrous second quarter against Stanford before prevailing 55-31. This season Cal is averaging 41.5 points per game while giving up 24.5 points. Meanwhile, Oregon is averaging 48.5 points per contest and giving up 21.5 points. Oregon is first the Pac-10 in scoring offense and third in scoring defense while California is third and fifth in the same conference categories. This game is the most challenging yet on the Ducks' calendar.

Cal features a very talented and experienced receiving corps in Heisman Trophy candidate DeSean Jackson, Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins. Hawkins is the Pac-10's second leading receiver with 25 catches and has 315 yards (78.8 ypg, fifth in the Pac-10) and four touchdowns. Jackson is the Bears' second leading receiver with 17 catches for 151 yards (37.8 ypg) and Jordan has 12 catches for 113 yards (28.2) and a touchdown. Bellotti calls the California receivers the best receivers the Ducks have seen so far this season.

"A combination of the fastest and most accomplished," described Bellotti of the California receiving threat. "They're not the biggest but they have tremendous athleticism."

The man dishing out the ball is junior Nate Longshore, who is 76-of-120, 852 yards, five touchdowns and has thrown two interceptions.

"Nate Longshore is the trigger man," observed Bellotti. "When he's on they are tough to beat."

The Cal running game maybe missing Marshawn Lynch this year, but Justin Forsett and Jahvid Best are filling in quite nicely. Forsett is the conference's second leading rusher at 121 yards per game and has scored seven touchdowns. Best, a player that was highly coveted by Oregon last year is a hybrid type of offensive player that has tremendous speed and can also a dangerous pass receiver. Jahvid has carried the ball 13 times for 165 yards with a long of 64 yards and has two touchdowns. He also has six receptions for 35 yards and a touchdown. Forsett though is the thorn that Bellotti would like to keep out of his side.

"Justin Forsett is the one that makes that thing go," observed Bellotti of the Cal offense. "He's the cog that is always there and you always have to guard against him."

Bellotti thinks that Forsett and the big California offensive line force teams to try and stop the run and that in turn allows Cal's passing game to open up. Oregon of course wants to stop the run. So there is really not much mystery on what Oregon is going to do on defense. The Ducks want to mix up some zone and man-defenses and try and stop Forsett or Best from having a big day and rely on Oregon's pass rush and secondary to hold off the Cal passing attack -- not a simple task by any stretch of the imagination. The key for the Oregon defense in Bellotti's mind is very simple.

"Don't give up the big plays," said Bellotti of what his team must do to slow down Cal. "And stop the run."

This game though won't entirely be about what Oregon's defense has to do, it is also about what Cal's defense must do to stop Oregon. After all, the Ducks are the most potent offense in the conference racking up 536.8 yards per game. Quarterback Dennis Dixon is the Pac-10's leader in total offensive averaging 305.8 yards including 233 yards passing and 72.8 yards per game rushing. Dixon is 66-of-96 passing for 932 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. He has the second longest rush from the line of scrimmage this season of 80 yards. Five of his touchdown passes have been for more than 50 yards. He has already been honored as Pac-10 Player of the Week twice in only four weeks of the season.

Dixon also gets some help.

Jonathan Stewart is the Pac-10's leading ground gainer at 125.8 yards per game. His longest run from scrimmage this year was 88 yards against Fresno State, and that set an Autzen Stadium record. Stewart has carried the ball 65 times for 503 yards and four touchdowns. When Stewart gets tired in comes Jeremiah Johnson. Johnson has 251 yards on 42 carries (60.2 yards per game average) three touchdowns.

Obviously, the Ducks are going the run the ball.

Oregon took a blow in the receiving corps last week when their leading receiver Brian Paysinger (nine catches, 165 yards and two touchdowns) was lost for the season due to a knee injury suffered in practice. Last week against Stanford, Cameron Colvin stepped into Paysinger's place and responded with eight catches for 134 yards and touchdown of 71 yards. Jaison Williams is the team's leading receiver now with 18 catches for 267 yards and four touchdowns.

Last year when California trounced Oregon, the Ducks seemed to be unable to deal with the Bears' great speed in all aspects of the game. Even though Oregon had better showings against UCLA and Washington, the Cal game seemed to mark how the way of how Oregon's season would turn out. Lots of turnovers, lots of missed opportunities and lots of disappointments, particularly with losing the last four games of the season. This year though, there has been some changes.

Offensive Coordinator Chip Kelly came to the Ducks last spring with a mission of cutting down on turnovers and so far this season the Ducks have been successful -- that is until last week in the second quarter against Stanford. The Duck lost the ball three times in the quarter. The Cardinal scored 28 points in the quarter taking a 31-24 lead into halftime.

What is different about the 2007 Ducks and 2006 Ducks is best reflected by what happened when the Ducks came out of the locker room after halftime last Saturday night.

In a calm, business-like, manner the Ducks had their best performance of the year. Oregon stopped Stanford cold in the second half and scored 31 unanswered points to win the game 55-31. There was no panic, shouting or finger pointing. Instead, the Ducks went about the task at hand and in a relaxed manner, enjoying the game of football.

"I think this team learned a lot from last year, those seniors and upperclassmen that are back learned that you can handle frustration in several different ways." Bellotti said of his team. "You could push the panic button, you can try to do things outside of your control or you can relax."

Bellotti indicated that his message at halftime was about character and confidence. The Ducks knew that they were going to be tested and actually it was better that their meltdown happened in the second quarter so that the coaches and team could come back change it. Bellotti says it wasn't about getting riled up and playing with emotion but it was more about calm confidence -- confidence in the offense defense and special teams and supporting each other and coming together as a team.

During the low points last season the Ducks often looked confused. There were rumors of discourse among the players and coaches. Rumors that players were going to leave. Many fans believed when Dennis Dixon decided that he would play professional baseball during the summer, it was a sign he had given up on the Ducks or visa versa. In fact though, at least through the early part of the season, the team has shown more maturity and growth. Particularly Dixon who is very focused on the football season, and the time he spent with the Atlanta organization did way more good for Oregon football than it did for improving the Braves' chances at winning the NL East.

Bellotti attributes the change to the difficult times the Ducks went through last year and now those lessons learned are starting to pay off. At least to this point of the season. The Oregon headman freely admits that the Ducks are still a work in progress and that there's a lot of things his team can do better. He believes there have been times this season that the Ducks didn't play very well, like the first half of the Houston game and the first half of the Michigan game. However, anybody thinking that the Ducks haven't played anybody yet should consider that Houston, a team Oregon beat by 21 points has won two straight games. The Ducks beat Michigan by 32 points at Ann Arbor and since then the Wolverines pounded Notre Dame 38-0 and last week knocked off No. 10 Penn State, 14-9. Many think the Blue and Maze are again strong contenders to win the Big Ten.

This week the Ducks will need all the character and confidence that they can muster. The contest is the spotlight game of the week. Festivities around Eugene will start very early in the morning so all those East Coast-biased football fans and pundits can sip their coffee and watch the ESPN GameDay crew do their thing.

It's going to be fun and relaxing and according to Bellotti and that's the way it should be.


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