Good Jungle Karma Can Help the Ducks

The No. 2 ranked Oregon Ducks (8-1, 5-1) must keep holding onto the ball and back up an offensive lineman's take when the Ducks travel to Tucson to meet the Arizona Wildcats (4-6, 3-4) on Thursday night. At stake for Oregon is another step toward a possible BCS Championship.

The Ducks have risen to their highest regular season ranking ever at No. 2 in both the AP and Coaches' Poll, and are second in the BCS standings behind LSU. Last year when Oregon faced Arizona at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, the Ducks played what may have been their worst game of the season. The Wildcats completely dominated the Ducks in a 37-10 pasting that saw Oregon give up four interceptions and lose a pair of fumbles. It also was a game that Dennis Dixon was benched after throwing three picks. Dixon seemed unsure and lost his confidence. It was a nightmare for the tail spinning Ducks that started a week before against USC, continued against Arizona and lasted two more games against Oregon State and BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.

A year later, things have changed.

Dixon is no longer confused and his confidence couldn't be any better. He is the front runner for the Heisman Trophy. He is the most efficient passer in the Pac-10 with a 163.1-efficiency rating based on 2,074 yards of passing with 67.9 percent completion mark (167-for-246) 20 touchdowns and only three interceptions for the year. Dixon has also run for 549 net yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.

A year ago, the Ducks put themselves in a position to lose the game with turnovers. Special teams had problems with fumbled punt returns and in addition to interceptions, it was easy to see why the Ducks' heads dropped last year against the Wildcats. This year the turnover-to-take away ratio for Oregon is at +7, the best in the conference and the reason for that?

"Our defense is fairly similar in terms of the number of takeaways they've gotten," said Oregon Head Coach Mike Bellotti of the difference between this year's team and last year. "It's just that our offense and special teams have not turned over the ball to the degree they did last year. Part of that is conscious effort. Part of that it maturity by our quarterback and punt return."

Punt return duties this year have mostly fallen on senior Andiel Brown, who has field 17 punts for 177 yards, with a long of 64. Brown has fumbled once, but has had some injury problems and for now true freshman Aaron Pflugrad could be the man returning punts.

"Right now Andiel did not practice yesterday," commented Bellotti. "He (Brown) did practice Friday and is supposed to practice today. I won't really know anything until that time until he comes back Aaron Pflugrad is our punt returner."

Oregon's high-powered offense has been effective passing the ball at 239.1 yards per game and running the ball at 271.4 yards, for a conference leading 510.6 yards of offense and 42.8 points per game scoring.

The Ducks have had injury problems at receiver with wideouts Brian Paysinger, Cameron Colvin and running back Jeremiah Johnson lost for the year. The Ducks had a scare at practice yesterday when tight end Ed Dickson was dinged up in practice and many wondered what his status is for the Thursday night showdown with Arizona.

"Ed Dickson should be fine," said Bellotti. "He suffered a concussion yesterday in practice and was held out of practice. Hopefully he'll return today or the next day, but right now I think he should be fine, but I'll know more by practice today."

The Duck offense has been a machine this season and if Dixon is the operator then Jonathan Stewart has been the piston rushing for 1,142 yards and leads the conference at 126.9 yards a game. Stewart has scored 10 times running the ball and has 98 yards of receiving on 16 catches and a touchdown. Stewart will undoubtedly see the lion's share of carries against Arizona this week and the Ducks may get some more help back at receiver.

"Jonathan (Stewart) is going to continue to carry the load," remarked Bellotti of the offensive attack. "We may have the services of Derrick Jones which will help our speed quotient for our receivers."

Several issues have hampered Jones, the receiver with world-class speed over the last couple of weeks including a bum ankle, some sort of team policy violation and a toothache. Jones had his wisdom teeth pulled, come to grips with the team policy and healed up the ankle sprain.

Bellotti also indicated that Jeffery Maehl would be a two-way player against the Wildcats, to add some support to the dwindling receiver corps. Maehl, 6-1, 178, is a ferrous hitter out his safety position and has recorded 12 tackles (seven solos) including one for loss this season.

"He will play both ways this week, Bellotti said of Maehl's participation against Arizona. "He may play a greater role on defense than he normally does, but he'll also play some offense."

Another big question about the Oregon receiving corps is the mindset of wide receiver Jaison Williams. Against Arizona State, Williams had a game high 106 yards receiving on five catches including two touchdowns, but he also dropped a number of passes and he was visibly upset with himself over the drops. The bye week came at a good time for Williams. Bellotti said after the ASU game, that the Duck coaches would go back to basics with Williams and resolve any problems he might be experiencing by having him catch lots of passes in practice.

"I think a week off helped," Bellotti observed of Williams' progress. "Some introspection some talks about playing the position... In general he's caught the ball very well this week."

The Wildcats, like the Ducks are coming off a bye week. Arizona leads the Pac-10 in passing led by quarterback Willie Tuitama, who has thrown for 3,145 yards (314.5 per game) 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Arizona though does not have a particularly impressive running game as it has the last place running attack in the conference at 82.1 yards per game. While it appears that Arizona is one-dimensional which would be an advantage to Oregon's vastly improved defense, the Wildcats' attack concerns Bellotti. Oregon is ninth in the Pac-10 in passing defense, giving up 269.9 yards a game in passing. Part of that of course is because Oregon has been so far out in front of opponents this season, that foes have had to throw the ball a lot in order to try and get back into the games.

During Bellotti's weekly media conference a question was asked that when it came to playing Arizona, coached by Mike Stoops, did Bellotti ever feel like he was being ganged up on by Stoops and his brother Bob, the coach at Oklahoma. Oregon has had a mini-rivalry with Oklahoma the last three seasons, and the Sooners are just a spot or two behind the Ducks in the polls and BCS standings.

"Every time that we've played them we've felt that was probably the case whether it was Oklahoma or Arizona," responded Bellotti to the question if he felt like he was taking on two head coaches this week. "No, we'll take on that challenge."

Last Friday, three Oregon linemen had the chance to appear on the Jim Rome Show and center Jeff Kendall stole the show with a five-minute "rant" that may have really expressed what the Ducks are feeling about their season. Kendall used the lingo of "The Jungle" and called out critics of the Ducks who had made pre-season predictions that Oregon could have done well if it had a decent offensive line. While not quite understanding the entire "smack" from Rome's "jungle" Bellotti said he was impressed that Jim Rome was impressed by Kendall's call. Kendall also guaranteed that the Ducks would be in the BCS Championship game, although he did clarify if by saying the Ducks play every game as if it were the BCS Championship game.

"I got a lot of email and support from people across the country," Bellotti said of the linemen's appearance of the Rome show. "When you do that (talk smack) you got to go out and back it up."

On Thursday the Ducks are again in the spotlight with a nationally televised game. A win keeps the dream of a national championship alive while a loss drops any chance the Ducks would have. When asked about the trend this season that the No. 2 team has met an untimely loss after attaining the ranking, Bellotti pointed out the previously second ranked teams were unbeaten when they were rated No. 2 and the Ducks have already dropped one game this season. Is that good karma?

Probably so, in the Jungle.

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