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October 2, 2007

Ducks find themselves in familiar spot

EUGENE, Ore. Oregon has vowed that this season would be different, but so far the results look hauntingly familiar.

For the second consecutive season, the Ducks opened the year with a four-game winning streak that included a non-conference victory over a high-profile opponent. Once again, the hot streak ended with a mistake-filled loss to California.

The Ducks can only hope the pattern ends here.

Oregon went on to finish 7-6 last season and ended the year with four consecutive losses. The Ducks spent the entire offseason focusing on how to avoid a similar collapse, but their penchant for turning it over in critical situations came back to haunt them Saturday in a 31-24 loss to California.

"The turnovers were huge," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "That's what we talk about all year long. That's the undoing of a good football team. And we believe we're a good football team."

But they're not good enough to overcome the kinds of mistakes they made last weekend. The team that finished 109th in the nation in turnover margin last season suffered a relapse at the worst possible time.

In fact, Oregon might still be undefeated if it hadn't turned the ball over four times in the final 12 minutes against Cal.

The Golden Bears scored the go-ahead touchdown after Anthony Felder picked off a Dennis Dixon pass at Oregon's 21. Tyson Alualu's interception at California's 17 prevented a possible game-tying score. And the biggest mistake of all came when wide receiver Cameron Colvin's fumble rolled out of bounds in the end zone, turning a potential touchdown into a game-clinching touchback with 16 seconds left.

"We have to learn not to give the other team chances to make plays," Oregon tailback Jonathan Stewart said.

It's a lesson the Ducks should have learned last season, when they turned the ball over 19 times in their six losses. Those mistakes help explain how a team with as much firepower as Oregon stumbled so badly down the stretch.

Perhaps no player reflects Oregon's split personality more than Dixon, whose ability to make huge plays for his team and the opposition make him one of the nation's most exciting and exasperating players to watch.

Dixon was one of the hottest quarterbacks in the nation through the first four games of the 2006 season, but he threw 14 interceptions and only eight touchdown passes over the last nine games of the year.

Oregon's 31-24 loss to California followed a familiar pattern for the Ducks, who have committed fewer turnovers than their opponent in only one of their seven losses over the past two seasons. Here's a look at the Ducks' giveaways and takeaways in those seven games.
Opponent Giveaways Takeaways Score
California 4 1 45-24
Washington State 4 3 34-23
USC 1 3 35-10
Arizona 6 0 37-10
Oregon State 2 1 30-28
BYU 2 2 38-8
California 4 0 31-24
He looked like a different player early this fall, and entered the California game as a Heisman Trophy contender. Dixon threw 135 consecutive passes this season before throwing an interception, but he picked an awful time to revert to his 2006 form.

Oregon's season could depend on how Dixon defines himself over the next six weeks. Were the two late interceptions against California an aberration, or the start of another second-half slump?

To his credit, Dixon didn't get down on himself after the two mistakes. He went 7-for-9 for 76 yards on Oregon's final drive of the day, which almost certainly would have ended with a game-tying touchdown if Colvin hadn't fumbled.

Dixon never lost his confidence or composure against Cal.

"As a quarterback, you never let somebody see you sweat," said Dixon, who has rushed for a touchdown and thrown for a score in each of the Ducks' first five games. "That's been my motto my entire college career."

Oregon must avoid turning the ball over because its defense isn't good enough to bail out the offense. The Ducks have allowed 31 points in each of their two Pac-10 games. Oregon ranks 76th in the nation in total defense and is allowing nearly 4 yards per carry.

California's Justin Forsett became the fourth running back to rush for 100 yards against Oregon. Although a secondary that features Jairus Byrd and Patrick Chung is considered the strength of Oregon's defense, the Ducks allowed Cal's DeSean Jackson to catch 11 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns.

"We need to play to our potential," Chung said. "We didn't play to our potential (against California), and we ended up losing."

Oregon could have more trouble reaching that potential without the help of senior linebacker and team captain A.J. Tuitele, who will miss six to eight weeks after breaking a foot in the California game.

The vulnerability of Oregon's injury-riddled defense should put more pressure on the Ducks' offense to avoid mistakes and continue its prolific pace.

Oregon's offense appears capable of carrying that burden. Stewart leads the Pac-10 and ranks ninth in the nation with 124.6 rushing yards per game. When Dixon doesn't turn the ball over, he's as dangerous as just about any quarterback in the nation. That duo leads an offense that has averaged 43.6 points and 528 yards per game.

The Ducks certainly have enough talent to finish high in the Pac-10 standings, though the next month should determine their eventual fate. Oregon faces Washington State and Washington the next two weeks before playing host to USC and Arizona State in back-to-back games.

"We've got a lot of season left,'' Dixon said after the loss to California. "This was the fifth game. We've still got a whole half to go. We've got to continue to pull together."

Their season again is at a crossroads. At least now they know not to follow the same path they took last season.

"This isn't it," Byrd said. "We need to stay focused. We're not going to let what happened last year happen (again)."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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