Ducks Defense Wins the Day

Eugene – While all the talk regarding the Oregon Ducks (7-1, 4-1) this last week about the prolific Oregon offense, on Saturday against USC (6-2, 3-2) it was the Duck defenders that made the difference. Oregon beat the Trojans, 24-17 in front of the largest crowd ever to watch a football game in the state of Oregon.

(PHOTO) Matt Harper celebrates his game clinching interception versus USC. (Photo by Chris Wilson)

"Coach (Nick) Allioti put together a tremendous game plan, and the kids executed it," said Oregon Head Coach Mike Bellotti of the defensive effort. "I am very pleased with our secondary."

Bellotti should be pleased as the Ducks, particularly safety Matt Harper, looked for opportunities to take the ball away from the Trojans by picking off two of USC quarterback Mark Sanchez's passes and causing a break up. Both interceptions came at crucial times. The first pick stopped USC in its tracks during the 3rd quarter, when it finally looked like USC Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian had found the key to success against the stubborn Ducks.

The Ducks had dug in their heels early in the game when the opening kickoff was fumbled by Andre Crenshaw on the Oregon 21. However, the dark cloud of gloom that hung over Autzen Stadium dissipated when the Trojans were unable to go 10 yards and turned the ball over on downs. The tone was set for the day, and the Oregon defense was set to prove that it isn't only the Oregon offense that makes this Duck team a great one. For the game USC gained a total of 378 yards, 277 yards through the air and 116 yards on the ground, well below the normal 434.7-yards per game USC is used to. The Ducks dodged a second bullet when USC's Greg Woldneck short-kicked a punt and the ball hit Garren Strong's foot on the Oregon 33. The Ducks took it personally, dug in and weathered a storm allowing only a field goal.

"I'm very proud of our team, especially our defense," Bellotti reflected. "This was a defensive victory. We put the defense in a difficult spot twice in the first half and they held USC to only a field goal."

What is intriguing about the Duck defensive effort is that much of the USC yardage (155 yards) came in the 4th quarter as USC desperately tried to stay in the game. When defensive end Will Tukuafu forced a fumble on USC's 16-yard line mid-way through the third quarter, the Ducks were able to capitalize on the mistake and scored a touchdown that put them ahead at the time 17-10.

"Oregon did a great job defensively," reflected USC Head Coach Pete Carroll. "We couldn't really get anything going, and defensively they were a lot better then I anticipated."

Harper's second interception in the final moments of the contest really brought down the house of 59,277 when he stepped in front of a Trojan receiver and guaranteed the Duck win with just 33 ticks left on the clock. USC had made a furious run in the fourth quarter trailing the Ducks, 24-10. Sanchez had directed one successful drive of 85 yards that only lasted 48 seconds with 4:44 left in the game and cutting Oregon's lead to 24-17. The Duck offense stalled after three snaps and Oregon punted. The ball was fielded on the USC 32, but an offensive facemask put the ball back on the USC 17. The Ducks seemed determined to make every play count, and with 3:10 left in the game USC started its last drive. Sanchez led the way to the Duck 33, only it was Harper taking advantage.

"I acted like I was going to play the outside receiver, went inside and just made the play," Harper described.

Mark that one to go right up there on the pre-game screen with 'The Pick' by Kenny Wheaton.

Oregon's offense took what was available, and the tough USC defense wasn't allowing much room for Dennis Dixon to operate. Dixon was often forced to run, which he did, but it was very apparent that USC was challenging the Duck signal caller to try his luck at relying on his feet. Dixon rushed for 76 yards on 17 carries, scoring one touchdown. He also threw for 157 yards on 16-for-25. Maybe the most telling statistic between this year's Duck win as opposed to last year's USC win was that Dixon had no turnovers. He kept his head and the ball safely under his control. When the Ducks needed to keep the drives going, Dixon found a way to squirt up the field to pick up a first down. Oregon had 22 first downs for the day to USC's 18. Anyone watching today's game would have to ask themselves, Dennis Dixon and Heisman Trophy? Sounds like something that naturally goes together. Dixon's impact on the team is more than just running and throwing the ball. It is his demeanor on the field and on the sidelines.

"Early on Dixon did a great job of avoiding hits and picking up yardage," observed Bellotti of his quarterback. "We had to be patient running the ball. There weren't those big holes."

Oregon relied on the running game for 182 yards of the total 339 yards. Jonathan Stewart went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season by registering 103 net yards on 25 carries and two touchdowns. For the season Stewart now has 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. Stewart's longest run of the day was for 16 yards, which resulted in a touchdown.

"That's a good defense and we held our own," Stewart said of USC. "Our offensive line did well and Dennis (Dixon) really shook things up by moving around."

The Duck offense even saw the addition of another surprise, even to the head coach, when Dixon rolled to his right and pitched the ball to offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz. Schwartz took off with the ball and gained three yards. Bellotti wasn't quite ready to say the play might be used again, in fact he probably will have a bad dream some night about a lineman being the pitchman, however when things are working well…

"I'm sure that will be on SportCenter, that was a designed play as you can probably tell," kidded Bellotti. We like Schwartz's ability in the open field."

Ed Dickson was Dennis Dixon's favorite receiver by grabbing five balls for 69 yards. Aaron Pflugrad had two catches for 28 yards and is quickly becoming a crowd favorite as "Pflu, Pflu" was chanted every time Pflugrad touched the ball. Junior Terence Scott recorded his first catch as a Duck and ended up with a total of two catches for four yards. Stewart had two catches for 21 yards, and Garren Strong added two for 17. Crenshaw had two catches for five yards, to go along with two rushing yards. Jaison Williams had one catch for 13 yards.

Rover Patrick Chung was the leading tackler for the day with 13 (six solos) and also had a break up. Walter Thurmond had 12 tackles (nine solos), including three tackles for loss. Jairus Byrd had nine tackles (five solos) and a TFL. Tukuafu had seven tackles (five solos), a forced fumble and fumble recovery to go along with a quarterback hurry. Linebacker Jerome Boyd recorded a sack among his seven tackles, three solo.

Kicker Matt Evensen had a field goal of 41 yards and punter Josh Syria booted five times with an average of 36.4 yards with a long of 45, two inside the 20 and one touchback.

The key to this game though was the Duck defense causing the turnovers and making a stand just when they needed to do so. The Ducks didn't have any critical errors and hung onto the ball. For Carroll the game was fever pitched and the atmosphere was just the kind the folks in Oregon were hoping it would be.

"This game felt like a championship game, like it was supposed to," commented Carroll of the game. "We were tied at half time and thought we had a good chance to get back into it and started to feel it but we just couldn't make it."

Championship fever may start to be swelling as the Ducks overcame the biggest hurdle that has blocked their success in the past – the USC Trojans. Next week is a show down with ASU, but for Oregon the ticket to any championship lay strictly in its own hands. Beating USC though, was a great start.

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