Defense, offense, special teams did what they had to do
Before the season, the Tribune noted five areas that would determine Oregon's fate. Here are the five areas, revisited after the Ducks' Fiesta Bowl win:
1. Can Joey Harrington handle the hype?
Uh, yes. The Portland native and subject of Oregon's star-building effort had a solid, if not outstanding, year, culminating with his 350-yard, four-touchdown performance against Colorado.
His regular-season stats weren't the country's best: 57.8 percent passing, 2,414 yards, 23 touchdowns. But he threw only five interceptions and rallied the Ducks to four fourth-quarter wins, giving him 11 career late comebacks. His most significant contribution can't be described in stats. It's leadership. It's why he was named a Heisman Trophy finalist.
2. Holes in the defense need to be plugged.
Three new linebackers Ñ Kevin Mitchell, David Moretti, Wesly Mallard Ñ were athletic, quick, hard hitters who played their best in the Fiesta Bowl, limiting Colo-rado to 49 yards rushing.
Cornerbacks Rashad Bauman and Steve Smith played single coverage, allowing the Ducks to concentrate on stopping the run. Opponents passed for more than 280 per game on the Ducks, in part because the corners weren't helped by a concentrated pass rush.
Still, 'hands down, our defensive line' showed the most improvement, often with a rotation of eight or nine players, coach Mike Bellotti says.
3. Special teams need special attention.
Oregon suffered its lone loss, 49-42 to Stanford, largely because the Cardinal blocked two punts and executed an onside kick in the fourth quarter.
Otherwise, special teams 'got better,' Bellotti says. 'We passed the test.'
Neither rookie kicker Jared Siegel nor punter Jose Arroyo hurt the Ducks. Siegel succeeded in his one attempt to win a game, kicking a 32-yarder against USC; Arroyo averaged a yeoman 38.5 yards per kick.
Keenan Howry on punt returns and Onterrio Smith on kickoffs became TD threats. In a special Stanford game, Howry had 186 punt return yards and Smith returned a kickoff 96 yards for a score.
4. Will Oregon put the hammer down, offensively?
Not in close, early wins over Wisconsin, Utah and USC.
'It was a team that certainly found ways to be creative, to win the close ones,' Bellotti says. '(Offense) didn't know itself É we had the tailback situation (with Smith and Maurice Morris) to unfold, the emergence of (receiver) Samie Parker, and the offensive line É took half the season to be good, settling in on five starters.'
It turned into a record-setting offense: 63 points against Arizona, Smith's 285 rushing yards against WSU, Harrington's six TD passes and Howry's four TD catches against Arizona State.
Then, there was the Fiesta Bowl É 38 points, 500 yards, 7.1 yards per play. Saved the best for last.
5. Can Oregon finish what it started?
Yes, unquestionably, the Ducks earned national respect. They fell out of the top 10 once (after losing to Stanford), took advantage of other teams above them losing and moved up to No. 2 in the polls. Then they throttled the purportedly hottest team in the country in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Ducks became the poster players for what ails college football Ñ the Bowl Championship Series' discriminatory, computer-aided setup. As a result, 13 seniors fell just short in their quest to play in the Rose Bowl national title game.