Going down fighting
Record-setting performances can't overcome Gopher running game
EL PASO, Texas Ñ For as many times as Oregon's offense shot blanks this season, it went down with guns blazing in the Sun Bowl.
Gunslinging Kellen Clemens threw for 363 yards and three TDs on 32 of 42 passing Ñ an astronomical 76 percent completion rate Ñ and speeding bullet receiver Samie Parker set UO records with his 16 catches, 200 yards and two scores.
But Oregon's defense, which stood and took cannonballs at its gut in other games, succumbed to Minnesota's constant barrage of runs. What team, in its right mind, runs 12 out of 15 times on a drive with less than four minutes left for the winning points? The Gophers.
Kicker Rhys Lloyd finished the drive, putting Minnesota ahead with a 42-yard field goal with 23 seconds left Ñ but only after Oregon had called two timeouts to aid the Gophers' effort.
A celebratory Gopher cannon went off, and a Minnesota defender then intercepted Clemens' desperation pass. And Oregon's season Ñ which included thrilling highs, monumental lows and redemption at the end of the regular season Ñ ended with a 31-30 defeat.
'You've got to down fighting,' says linebacker Kevin Mitchell, one of 14 departing seniors. And there is a strong possibility junior defensive tackle Igor Olshansky will join them by opting early for the NFL draft.
'You always want to pull out the 'W', but we can't be too upset with ourselves, because we played hard and competitively,' says kicker Jared Siegel, who had three field goals. 'We were in it until the last play of the game.'
'We have nothing to hang our heads about,' junior safety Marley Tucker says. 'I'm happy with the way we played. Happy we came together, and we didn't make many mistakes.'
The operative word was 'many,' as Oregon (8-5), trailing 28-27, had its chance to build a cushion. With less than five minutes remaining, the Ducks were at Minnesota's 23-yard line. But Clemens threw errantly to Jason Fife in the end zone, had his second-down pass batted away and was sacked on the third down.
The Ducks settled for 3 points on Siegel's 47-yarder with 4:16 left. And thus the Gophers, trailing 30-28, needed only a field goal to win.
Minnesota averaged nearly 300 yards rushing this year by not giving up on its ground attack Ñ ever Ñ and the Gophers methodically started their final march. By the time they reached the Oregon 26 with 51.3 seconds left, they had burned their timeouts. On the next play, the Ducks tackled Laurence Maroney for a 4-yard loss.
The clock was ticking away with Minnesota trying to decide whether to run a hurried third-down play or have QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq spike the ball and set up a 47-yard field-goal attempt. Then Oregon surprisingly called timeout. Coach Mike Bellotti said he wanted to preserve time, in case the Gophers made their field goal.
After the timeout, Maroney gained 5 yards, and UO called timeout again. Lloyd's kick, tipped by Junior Siavii, cleared the crossbar by about 2 feet.
'There was a slight breeze, enough to take a couple yards off his kick,' Siegel says. 'But 42 yards was well within his range.'
But 47 also might have been within his range had Bellotti chosen not to call timeouts.
The argument for preserving time made some sense, because 'it felt like whoever had the ball last would win the game,' Oregon center Dan Weaver says.
Indeed, after the scoreless first period, when Oregon held the ball for more than 10 minutes, it was all-out offense. The Ducks finished with 453 yards of offense, Minnesota 413.
The Gophers (10-3) had 241 yards rushing Ñ 52 below their average Ñ but the Ducks held them to only 3.6 yards per carry in the first half. Minnesota just persisted on the ground, and Abdul-Khaliq added some short passes to keep the Ducks honest.
The Ducks haven't seen many better running teams, at least in Mitchell's time. 'They had us schemed, and we held our own for the most part,' he says. 'But they had a good, well-coached line, the backs ran hard and their quarterback was really smart.'
Oregon's quarterback didn't do too badly either. Clemens and Parker executed the Duck game plan to near perfection.
Minnesota had sent cornerback Trumaine Banks home Ñ to Columbus, Ohio, by Greyhound incidentally Ñ and put Isom at his position. Isom had played corner only briefly last spring ball. 'I had a practice in shoulder pads, and then a walkthrough. That's it,' Isom says.
So, the Gophers were susceptible to the pass, and Oregon attacked. The Ducks had 77 yards rushing, but only 14 in the second half. Why run? 'We were throwing the ball at will,' receiver Demetrius Williams says.
Parker capped his career in style. He set the UO record for single-game receptions (16), single-season receptions (77), career receptions (178) and career yardage (2,761).
He had 77 catches for 1,088 yards and seven TDs this season. Good thing he chose to come back for his senior season, as he'll probably get a decent shot at playing in the NFL.
'Man, he's really quick,' Isom says. 'He ran good routes, and they did a good job of getting him all over the place.'
Parker made some leaping and twisting catches, too. 'We got the 'W', but he definitely did his thing,' Isom says.
Parker says he took what the defense gave him. 'I just sat down in the right areas, and the quarterback happened to come back to me. Sometimes I was the third option and he came back to me on check-downs.'
Still, the game boiled down to whether the Ducks could stop the Gophers, and they didn't.
'They really wouldn't come straight at us,' defensive end Devan Long says. 'They would cut, reach or scoop (block) and we weren't used to that. We saw it on film, but it's different going against the scout team than facing Minnesota.'
After the game, Olshansky said he was strongly 'thinking about' opting for the NFL. 'I still need to talk with my family about it,' he said. É Olshansky, on Minnesota's running game: 'Relentless? No, cheap. A lot of cut blocking' at the knees.
The previous UO receiving records: Single-game catches Ñ Seven players had 11, Marshaun Tucker being the last, against ASU in 2000. Season catches Ñ Bob Newland, 67 in 1970. Career catches Ñ Keenan Howry, 173, 1999-2002. Career yardage Ñ Tony Hartley, 2,744, 1996-99. É Newland caught his 67 balls in 11 games, and it took Parker 13 games. 'There will be no asterisk,' proclaims UO sports information director David Williford.
Big changes for Minnesota for the game: The Gophers went with a two-back offense, and they scratched starting receiver Jared Ellerson and starting tight end Ben Utecht. The dangerous Ellerson strained a hamstring during warm-ups, and Utecht had a lingering abdominal injury.
Great scene before the game: As parachutists flew in, Siegel looked around the sky, making sure his next practice boot wouldn't pick somebody off. É Justin Andrews started in place of injured Jerry Matson at middle linebacker for UO. Matson entered the game in the second quarter. É Ryan Gilliam, a redshirt cornerback, did not accompany the team to El Paso, choosing to stay in Florida with his family. He practiced in Eugene and remains on the team; UO allows redshirting players to not attend bowl games.
An autograph seeker approached Nike boss Phil Knight: 'You know,' he said, 'the last time somebody asked me they thought I was Eric Clapton.'
Fife, Parker, safety Keith Lewis and Siavii have been invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in February. Among those not invited: Weaver, Mitchell and defensive end Quinn Dorsey.
Attendance: 48,894, fifth-largest Sun Bowl crowd. The Ducks sold 3,000 to fans and donated 1,000 to Fort Bliss soldiers who will head to Iraq, and the Pacific-10 Conference will purchase the remaining 4,000 the Ducks had to commit to buying.
Defensive linemen Robby Valenzuela and Devan Long suffered ankle injuries; Valenzuela did not return in the second half, and Long played in pain, limping.
The Ducks lost their second consecutive bowl game and fell to 4-4 in postseason games under Bellotti.