That's right, Oregon

by Thomas J. Hutchison | 10/26/00 5:00am

Think of great college football states -- states with multiple top-tier programs: Florida, Texas, Alabama, California, Michigan, Oregon. Wait, Oregon? That's right, Oregon. For years a seeming wasteland along the college football landscape, Oregon has suddenly become the football capital of the West Coast. The Ducks of Oregon and the Beavers of Oregon State are in contention for the Rose Bowl. The teams feature contrasting styles: Oregon's offense is good, but its strength is a downright overpowering defense; Oregon State has an explosive offense featuring the nation's fifth-ranked rusher, Ken Simonton. If both teams win out, which is not only possible but likely, they will face off on the last week of the regular season with identical 9-1 records, with the winner going to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. This game, dubbed the "Civil War" by Oregonians, has been meaningless for years outside the Northwest; now it has suddenly become the game of the year in the Pac-10.

Let's start with the Oregon Ducks. Oregon has been a consistently good program over the last six seasons, starting with a Rose Bowl appearance against Penn State in 1995. Head coach Rich Brooks left the Ducks after that season to pursue the greener pastures of the NFL, and left the program in the capable hands of Mike Bellotti. The program has soared to new heights, with perhaps the best team to come out of Eugene in a long time. Oregon is currently ranked seventh in the AP poll.

The Ducks have been riding their stingy defense, coming off an impressive 14-10 victory over Arizona, which had been undefeated in the Pac-10. The Oregon defense was stifling, maintaining a slim four-point lead over the entire second half and shutting down Arizona's quarterback Ortege Jenkins. In addition, Oregon currently has the second-longest home winning streak in the country behind Florida State. The Ducks control their destiny -- if they win every remaining game, they go to Pasadena.

"We have put ourselves in good position, but we are only halfway through this," Bellotti said in an interview with the Oregonian. "We still have four games left against four good opponents, and we have to go on the road for three of those games. If we slip up even once, it can drastically alter what can happen"

Star defensive end Jason Nekolao was more enthusiastic in his response. "I'm not even going to lie -- I'm thinking about the Rose Bowl," said the senior from Tacoma, Wash. "Go get your tickets; we'll meet you down there."

Not if the cross state rival Oregon State Beavers, currently ranked 18th, have anything to say about it. OSU is coming off an equally impressive win at perennial powerhouse UCLA. The Beavers offense gained an astounding 603 yards and scored 23 unanswered points despite losing Simonton for much of the second half. The truly scary thing is that OSU thinks it can do better.

"We won a big football game and really didn't play probably as well as we played the two weeks previously," said coach Dennis Erickson, in his second year at the Beavers' helm. Erickson was nonetheless pleased, calling the game his "most satisfying win at Oregon State so far."

It's been a while since they've had those kinds of wins in Corvallis. Coach Erickson, previously the head coach for the Miami Hurricanes, where he won two national titles, and for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, deserves much of the credit. Until last year, the Beavers had not been to a bowl since 1970. This was the first time in over 30 years they have been ranked. Their last Rose Bowl was 1965. Indeed, until Erickson arrived, the only thing the Beavers were known for was their nickname. This year's Oregon State team is hungry.

"We have not gotten any respect at all,'" said receiver Chad Johnson after the UCLA win. "But after this game, I think we will. This proves we're for real. What else do we have to do?" The Beavers certainly deserve respect following last week, and they got it in the form of individual accolades. Quarterback Jonathan Smith and placekicker Ryan Cesca earned Pac-10 Offensive and Special Teams Player of the Week, respectively. Meanwhile, in Eugene, defensive end Saul Patu was named Defensive Player of the Week. A study in contrast? Perhaps. But these contrasts should make for interesting football when the last week of the season rolls around.

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