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Dixon drives Ducks into poll position.

Byline: Rob Moseley The Register-Guard

Sunday brought some anticipated news for the Oregon football team, which entered the Associated Press poll of media at No. 19 and the USA Today poll of coaches at No. 21 after winning 39-7 at Michigan a day earlier.

Might today bring more recognition for the Ducks, and in particular their quarterback? For his 368 yards of offense and four total touchdowns, Dennis Dixon has to be among the leading candidates for Pac-10 offensive player of the week honors.

Dixon is perhaps one of two favorites, along with Washington State quarterback and Sheldon High graduate Alex Brink, who threw for 469 yards and five touchdowns against San Diego State.

"Dennis played his best game," said UO coach Mike Bellotti, who leads the Ducks (2-0) against Fresno State at 4 p.m. Saturday in Autzen Stadium.

Dixon finished 16-of-25 for 292 yards and three passing touchdowns, numbers that could have been even better if not for at least four drops. He also ran for 76 yards and a touchdown - on that nifty Statue of Liberty variation - with 12 of his 19 lost yards coming on the one sack he took.

That was one of two plays by Dixon "we'd like to have back," Bellotti said after reviewing film Sunday. Two, of the 70 offensive plays the Ducks ran with Dixon at quarterback. The other misdeed was a misread on an option play.

"The rest of the time he played really, really well," Bellotti said.

Signs of Dixon's improved poise as a senior were all over the place. He avoided throwing an interception for the second straight game. He used his scrambling abilities not just to avoid pressure but to make big gains. In the fourth quarter, after taking the one sack, he threw the ball away out of bounds rather than risk another. And Dixon said one key to the three deep passes the Ducks completed was his improved ability to look off receivers.

Whereas last season, in key games like the ones at California and at Southern California, Dixon seemed to be pressing, Saturday he looked as comfortable as he does in practice each day. And this was at Michigan's "Big House," in front of the largest crowd Oregon has ever played before.

"It's just being there before," Dixon said. "109 (thousand) is a lot of people, but you've got to be able to zone them out and play your game. Coach Bellotti harped on that throughout the whole week: Just being a senior on the offensive side, you've got to put your team in the best situation to win."

Dixon did that, and it could have been an even more convincing win. A false start penalty on Jaison Williams - which Bellotti disputed after watching film - negated a touchdown on the Ducks' first drive, which ultimately ended in a field goal. They twice lost possession deep in Michigan territory, once on a fumble at the 6-yard line and again when they got stuffed on fourth down from the 1. They even missed two field goals.

Could it have really been 63-7 for Oregon at storied Michigan? It certainly seemed so, the way the Ducks responded to Dixon's leadership.

"He's at another level right now," UO tailback Jonathan Stewart said. "It's just maturity. Last year he was like a new babe. Now it's like he's a grown man."

Last year, Dixon played a part in early turnovers that forced Oregon into obvious passing situations that derailed the offense. This year, the Ducks have committed fewer turnovers and fewer penalties than both their opponents, with Dixon's improved discipline carrying over to the entire team.

Last year, too, the Ducks managed just one scoring pass longer than 36 yards, that being one of 47 yards in the Las Vegas Bowl. On Saturday, Oregon had touchdown passes of 85, 61 and 46 yards, despite Michigan using Cover 2 and Cover 3 zone defenses to guard against the long ball.

"We saw some things downfield, opportunities that we did not see last year," Bellotti said, referring to Dixon. "I think we're getting a better chance from a vision standpoint. That's all part of the decision-making process, recognizing things about certain coverage, and Dennis is a year better in that regard. ...

"That's the difference right now in our offense, in my mind. If you give us that long ball, we can take it."

Dixon's early success running the football may have played a part in the long passes, as did the efforts of Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson, who combined for 200 rushing yards.

"What they tried to do is chop another defensive player down and stop the run game," UO offensive coordinator Chip Kelly said. "If you're going to do that, you're going to be susceptible out back, and Dennis took advantage of that."

Throwing deep is theoretically impractical out of the spread, because it limits the number of players who stay home and block. That wasn't an issue Saturday, despite the presence of an extra Wolverine up near the line of scrimmage.

"They weren't blitzing him, though, they were just bringing him into the box," UO tackle Geoff Schwartz said. "If he's not coming, then he's no problem. And we can pick up six guys in a lot of our protections anyway."

With Dixon playing at such a high level, that's more than enough for the UO offense to be as explosive as it has seemingly ever been. When have the Ducks put together a more complete offensive half than they had in the first two quarters Saturday, comprising seven possessions - six ending in a scoring try (including a missed field goal) and the seventh being Dixon taking a knee to end the half?

Through two games this season, that's about the most effective anybody has been in slowing Oregon's dynamic senior quarterback.

FRESNO STATE AT OREGON

4 p.m. Saturday, Autzen Stadium. TV: KEZI. Radio: KUGN-AM (590), KZEL-FM (96.1). More UO football coverage at www.registerguard.com/blogs
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Title Annotation:Sports; The senior quarterback draws accolades for his stellar play
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 10, 2007
Words:1000
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