Season Begins For Dixon and Ducks Saturday

High-flying offense gets huge test in fifth game for second-straight year

Sept. 28, 2007

By Adam Caparell


College Football Preview: Week 5

> The Red Zone  |  Tape It Up  |  Strike The Pose  |  Breaking The Code
> B.J.: Say What?  |  Amsinger: Picks  |  Sorenson: 10 Questions  |  Braff: Inflated Irish
> Hart: Processing The Process  |  Trev: Hangover Saturdays  |  Can The Cards Be Saved?
> Blackburn: Dorsey Deserves More Pub  |  Crystal Ball: Weekend Predictions
> Caparell: Ducks Season Begins Saturday

Crystal Ball Breaks Down Cal-Oregon


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Dennis Dixon didn't spend his summer in Eugene.


Many know by now the story of how the Oregon quarterback spent his summer playing baseball in the Atlanta Braves organization after he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2007 Amateur Baseball Draft.


But considering the kind of start Dixon has gotten off to in September, maybe more coaches around the country should think about sending their quarterbacks down to the bush leagues.


After all, Dixon has thrown his name into the Heisman Trophy race since he's led the Ducks to a 4-0 record, a No. 11 national ranking and a prime position to potentially challenge USC for Pac-10 supremacy, if he and his Oregon teammates can defeat No. 6 Cal this weekend in Autzen Stadium.


The light bulb has seemingly turned on for Dixon after a disastrous end to the 2006 season that really began with the Ducks' fifth game of the season, a 45-24 loss to Cal.


Dixon paced the Ducks to a 4-0 record last fall, which included their controversial win over Oklahoma. But against the Bears, he imploded, throwing three interceptions as the then-No. 11 Ducks were blasted out of Berkeley. Dixon was knocked around all day long and his two touchdowns passes that afternoon came in garbage time when Oregon was facing deficits of 28 points late in the third and fourth quarters.


From there, it only got worse. The low point came in a 27-point home loss to Arizona in which Dixon threw three picks and Brady Leaf replaced him in the starting lineup for the final two games of the season.


But whatever shook Dixon's confidence last season is no longer an issue and the reinvention of Dennis Dixon started with spring practice, where he was nearly flawless, and overlapped into fall camp. Showing more patience and poise than ever before, and of course making wiser decisions, Oregon coach Mike Bellotti couldn't recall seeing Dixon throw one interception in those two months -- and he hasn't seen him thrown one yet this season. But that ever-elusive moment when Dixon "arrived" -- when he became a completely different quarterback -- certainly didn't come in June or July.


"I can't pinpoint a time this summer because I didn't see him this summer," Bellotti said.


Dixon surprised many by opting to play baseball after he was drafted. A gifted athlete, Dixon hadn't played baseball since high school and Bellotti was afraid of him getting injured and he wasn't exactly thrilled with the idea that Dixon would be missing valuable time he could be using to learn new offensive coordinator Chip Kelly's offense.


But to Dixon's credit, it's as if he never left Eugene. Making all the right decisions and thoroughly impressing everyone upon his return from baseball, it didn't take very long for his teammates to recognize his hard work.


"When Dennis arrived was when the team elected him a captain," Bellotti said. "That showed he had earned their respect in practice, despite not being here this summer. He really worked hard and made up for it during fall camp."


That hard work has allowed Dixon to accumulate more rushing yards and touchdowns through this season's first four games than any of his previous years.


"He does have a little more confidence this season," Cal safety Brandon Hampton said. "You can tell by the decisions he is making and the plays they have him running. He is playing at a high level right now. He can run, he can throw, and he uses the option; they got the whole nine yards."


Thanks to a veteran offensive line and talent at the skill positions, the senior has put up impressive early numbers. Completing 68 percent of his passes, Dixon has thrown 11 touchdowns and no picks while leading the Pac-10 in total offense. 


"He's in his comfort zone right now, there's no question about it," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "He has great weapons around him, a great offensive line -- they're running the ball very, very well -- and he has great receivers. He's such a threat because when they have the running game, they can throw the football and then he can pull it down and run; it's a very explosive offense."


With Jonathan Stewart -- the conference's leading rusher -- and Dixon making up a nasty spread-option attack, Oregon is averaging 536 yards per game, clear ahead of USC for the league lead.


"They have so many weapons," Tedford said. "They're a really scary group."


But here's an even scarier thought: despite the gaudy statistics the Ducks have put up, averaging 48 points per game, Bellotti knows his team is still learning the nuances of Kelly's offense.


"I think we're a very efficient offense," Bellotti said. "I still think we can get better. We have not played, in my mind, a complete game where we've hit on all cylinders. We've gotten a lot of yards, but not necessarily the points, and we can't turn the ball over. But I'm really pleased with where we're at and Chip's influence has been instrumental in that."


Bellotti really likes how easily Kelly has fit in after coming over from New Hampshire during the offseason. He's taken the spread-option offense Bellotti instituted a few seasons ago, coupled it with an abundant stock of talent and formed what is shaping up to be one of the most formidable offenses in the country.


"He came into a group that was used to moving the football and scoring points and he's taken it to another level," Bellotti said. "His knowledge of the spread-option offense is evident."


After the disappointing end to 2006 that saw the Ducks lose their last four games, Bellotti can't foresee a similar losing streak happening to this year's group. Not with a team that's a year older, a year wiser and one that's experienced the brunt of the Pac-10 schedule. Not with one of the best quarterbacks in the season's first quarter.


But after a relatively easy schedule to open the season, including that drubbing of Michigan, Oregon's season begins in earnest Saturday with the Ducks' fifth game. It's a conference showdown against a Top-10 team. And it's funny how it just happens to be Cal again this year.