Originally created 12/03/01

Rose Bowl or not, Ducks are at high-water mark



EUGENE, Ore. -- Oregon tries not to think about the one quarter - 10 lousy minutes of one quarter, actually - that kept it from being a lock for the Rose Bowl.

If not for a 49-22 home defeat to Stanford on Oct. 20, in which the Cardinal scored 21 straight points in the fourth quarter, all of this BCS hypothesizing would be moot: The Ducks would be No. 2 instead of No. 3 and would play unbeaten Miami for the national title.

"We don't talk about it," cornerback Rashad Bauman said following Oregon's rain-soaked 17-14 victory over Oregon State on Saturday.

The Ducks (10-1, 7-1 Pac-10) won't dare complain if they finish out of the top two in the BCS and have to settle for the Fiesta Bowl. The fact that Oregon is in a position to have such a prize to fall back on shows just how far the program has come in recent years.

Oregon was 10-2 last season, including a Holiday Bowl win over Texas, for the most victories in school history. That mark could be broken if the Ducks win in Tempe, Ariz., on New Year's Day, most likely against Colorado.

Oregon went just 100-154 between 1965 and 1988, never winning more than six games, until emerging from a long slumber in coach Rich Brooks' 13th season. With an 8-4 record in 1989, the Ducks began a run of 10 postseason appearances in 13 years, including the 1995 Rose Bowl.

The program accelerated under Mike Bellotti, who was promoted from offensive coordinator in 1994 after Brooks left for the NFL. But the arrival of Joey Harrington, who has surpassed Dan Fouts and Norm Van Brocklin as the greatest quarterback ever at Oregon, sent the team into overdrive.

Harrington, who grew up in Portland rooting for some awful Ducks teams in the 1970s and '80s, is 24-3 as the starter. The Ducks have won 19 of their last 21 games and are ranked higher than ever before.

"I'm proud to know that I've helped build it, especially coming from the state," Harrington said before Thanksgiving. "I saw the real average years. It's nice to know that I'm a part of something that brings so much happiness to so many people around the state."

Oregon has kept the momentum going by pouring money into the program. Backed by its most famous alumnus and biggest contributor, Nike chairman Phil Knight, Oregon is spending $90 million to expand Autzen Stadium by more than 12,000 seats, to 53,800.

To convince top recruits to endure the miserable Eugene winters, Oregon rigged up a video system in a wing of its athletic complex near the stadium, just in time for players' visits to the game.

Many of the videotaped highlights were culled from the past two years, with Harrington as the star. But the Ducks' secret has been landing talented, often overlooked players at every position.

Harrington threw for a season-low 104 yards Saturday, but tailback Maurice Morris gained 52 of his team's 80 yards on a punishing drive that ate up 7:45. Morris' 8-yard run put Oregon ahead 17-6 with 4:36 to play, and the Ducks held on.

The game really changed earlier in the fourth quarter, when Keenan Howry took a low punt and ran 70 yards for a touchdown to rally the Ducks from a 6-3 deficit. It was Howry's second punt return for a score this season.

"It was just the spark the whole team needed," guard Ryan Schmid said.

Assuming Oregon rises to No. 3 in the BCS standings on Monday and Tennessee is second, the Ducks need LSU to beat the Volunteers in Saturday's SEC title game to get to the national championship and keep the Rose Bowl in the Pac-10.

If it doesn't happen, Oregon can't help but look back on Oct. 20, when it had two punts blocked, Harrington threw two second-half interceptions and the Ducks blew a 42-28 fourth-quarter lead to Stanford.

But they'll try to remember that ordeal as one that made them rededicate their season and win the next four games.

"I'm sure a lot of guys will think, 'Damn, what if we hadn't lost? If those two blocked punts hadn't occurred, we'd be playing for the national championship,"' Bauman said. "But they happened, and they made us a stronger team."