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The worst part is, it's going to be at least two weeks before that whole mess of a fourth quarter is put in the proper context.

Byline: Rob Moseley The Register-Guard

The worst part is, it's going to be at least two weeks before that whole mess of a fourth quarter is put in the proper context.

What from that period ultimately will have been more indicative of this Oregon team - the two interceptions thrown by Dennis Dixon, or the 15 completions he had in 17 other attempts? The three touchdowns allowed by the UO defense, or the three stops it made in Cal's final four possessions? The drive in the final 1:45 that seemed to be leading to a game-tying score, or its final play, in which the Ducks fumbled away their upset chance?

Many of those answers won't be had until the Ducks take the field again in two weeks at home against Washington State. But this much is certain: No. 11 Oregon didn't earn itself a top-10 ranking, not after proving so inconsistent late in Saturday's 31-24 loss to the No. 6 Bears before a record crowd of 59,273 in Autzen Stadium.

"I think they showed character and pride," UO coach Mike Bellotti said. "But we can't shoot ourselves in the foot."

So much was on the line Saturday. Winning a battle with the other main challenger to USC in the Pac-10 race. Bursting into the nation's living room, after the front door was opened a crack by the presence of ESPN's College GameDay crew. And surviving a tough battle to pull out a victory that was bound to be less than perfect given the quality of the opponent.

Because Oregon couldn't do the last of those, the other two also slipped away. Now the Ducks are left to collect themselves, and avoid a meltdown that would be tragic poetry on the heels of last season, when Oregon was also 4-0 and ranked No. 11 before losing to California.

That season ended in a 7-6 record. Whether this season goes the same direction will be determined in part by how UO performs at home Oct. 13 against the Cougars, and perhaps even more so the following week at Washington.

"We refuse to fall apart," UO cornerback Jairus Byrd said. "This season's gone so well so far. We're not going to let this setback hold us down the whole season."

If the Ducks didn't entirely fall apart Saturday, they were teetering on the brink. The final quarter resembled the second period from a week prior at Stanford, in the way Oregon's opponent capitalized on its mistakes. This wasn't the lowly Cardinal, but rather the No. 6 Golden Bears, and so when the Ducks eventually gathered themselves, they couldn't complete the comeback.

The outcome remained in question all the way to the final seconds, after Oregon gained possession inside the final two minutes down a touchdown with 77 yards to march. And march the Ducks did, on six completions by Dixon in eight attempts, all with no timeouts, setting up first-and-goal from the Cal 5-yard line with 22 seconds left.

It seemed the stuff of the Joey Harrington era, Oregon's most tantalizing flirtation yet with national prominence. It seemed so as Dixon dropped back to pass once again. It seemed so as Cameron Colvin made the reception and raced to the front-left corner of the end zone. It seemed so right up to the point at which Colvin reached for the goal, and the ball popped loose and bounced out of bounds past the goal line, and Cal was awarded a touchback. Then, it seemed much closer to Oregon's turnover-filled season of a year ago.

"I saw the ball coming, I grabbed it and I was just trying to make a hell of an effort to get across that goal line for my team," said Colvin, who also had a touchdown reception for a second straight game since replacing the injured Brian Paysinger in the starting lineup. "... I believe it was hit out. I think (Cal safety Marcus Ezeff) hit my elbow or something. I'm not sure, but it came out."

The dramedy of errors began with the Ducks down 24-17 three minutes into the fourth quarter. Having surrendered two touchdowns already in the period, the UO defense stiffened following a miscommunication by two Oregon kick returners that resulted in a fumble deep in the Ducks' territory. Cal went three-and-out, and the UO offense marched 91 yards to tie the game, Dixon completing all six of his passes and running twice to account for 84 yards and the touchdown.

Pretty good, especially after the defense held again and forced a punt. Given this season, and that previous drive, few anticipated what happened next: Dixon's first interception of the fall, giving Cal possession at the UO 21 to start the Bears' final touchdown drive.

The Ducks answered by going 50 yards in three plays, before Dixon tried to dump a pass over the middle to Jonathan Stewart. The ball was tipped by one Cal defensive lineman before falling into the hands of another. But the UO defense forced another three-and-out, and the Ducks took over with 1:45 left on the clock and a chance to prove they could beat not just middling teams but also very good ones with their explosive but imperfect style of play.

It was not to be on this day. Whether it will in future ones remains to be seen.

INSIDE

More Oregon-Cal game coverage, including notes and statistics / D9-12

ON THE WEB

Expanded UO football coverage, including Xs and Os with Ken Woody and a photo gallery at www.registerguard.com/blogs

CAPTION(S):

Oregon coach Mike Bellotti (left) congratulates his former assistant, California coach Jeff Tedford, on Tedford's first victory at Autzen Stadium.
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Title Annotation:Sports; Fourth-quarter mistakes haunt Ducks and allow California to escape with a victory
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 30, 2007
Words:946
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