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Soul-searching puts Ducks back in line for better bowl

EUGENE ÑThe key for Oregon against Oregon State does not directly involve the big-name Ducks Ñ not Kellen Clemens, not Samie Parker, not Keith Lewis, not Kevin Mitchell.

It will be how well the Ducks control the line of scrimmage. It ain't sexy. It's just the truth.

Can the Ducks' offensive line block for the running backs and keep heat off Clemens? The line didn't do that against Washington State and Utah, teams with defenses similar to the one the Ducks will face Saturday at Autzen Stadium.

Even in last week's 31-13 win at UCLA, the Ducks scored only two offensive touchdowns, were held scoreless in the second half, and managed only 45 yards rushing.

Coach Mike Bellotti pointed to the offensive line's ineffectiveness and poor overall blocking for the running woes at UCLA. The Ducks' pass protection was decent until the Bruins finally employed all-out blitzes in the second half Ñ a strategy that WSU and Utah used, and OSU surely took note of.

'We didn't get beat physically,' Oregon offensive guard Nick Steitz said after the UCLA game. 'When you flat-out, physically get beat É from an O-linemen's perspective, that hurts inside Ñ you take that hard.'

Think OSU's Bill Swancutt, Dwan Edwards and Richard Seigler aren't licking their chops this week?

Bellotti says the Beaver defensive players are 'probably more physical than UCLA, and as fast or faster.'

On defense, the Ducks have done well lately with four-man pass rushes. The Ducks got to UCLA quarterback Drew Olson six times, with all but one sack by the line. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti doesn't like to blitz linebackers, because blitzing exposes the secondary and UO's cover corners.

So a lot rides on Igor Olshansky, Devan Long, Quinn Dorsey and others up front to get to OSU quarterback Derek Anderson and not allow the Beavers to run between the tackles with superstar tailback Steven Jackson.

'We have to find ways to pressure (Anderson) and change our looks of coverage,' Bellotti says.

The Ducks' game plan last year was to force Anderson to beat them Ñ 'and he did,' Bellotti says. Badly.

From the start this season, the Ducks have counted on their lines to carry the team. And nothing will change Saturday.

'If we wanted to turn (our season) around, we knew it started with us,' Steitz says. 'When we do get going, a lot of guys seem to follow.'

A character issue

What to make of Oregon? The Ducks (7-4) suffered three horrendous losses, but they still could make the Holiday Bowl. Injuries, youth and overconfidence after beating Michigan led to the downfall. Some soul-searching and resolve in the past two games against Cal and UCLA got them back.

The UO coaches openly questioned the players and their character. Marques Binns says Bellotti preached about not 'giving up' after Washington's 42-10 win over the Ducks.

The players responded.

'The guys playing are truly lionhearts,' Bellotti says. 'They are just warriors.

'And it's amazing when you think about the number of plays these guys are doing. We don't have any backups. The reality is, we're down about 16 players we may not get back for the Civil War game. I am very proud of this group of kids. They've persevered through some things and are actually improving at this point.'

Giddy would have described Bellotti after the win over UCLA.

'No question, when you see a turn and change in a team, you see a change in their confidence and ability to make plays and trust each other É it's one of the more gratifying things there is,' he says.

Clemens notes the team's character, too.

The season 'very well could have gone south on us, and there's a lot of people who thought that it was,' he says. 'This team and the coaches didn't, and that's the key.'

A leader steps forward

As Clemens and the rest of the Ducks celebrated on the field at UCLA, Jason Fife walked slowly toward the locker room Ñ alone. Fife would not comment to reporters, but his solo walk and stone face spoke volumes.

The Southern California kid, a senior, played only the last two series against the Bruins, as the Ducks gave Clemens full control of the offense. Clemens completed 21 of 27 passes for 183 yards.

Long ago, Fife knew that what he called his 'lot in life' was to back up Clemens, a sophomore who offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and Bellotti have been grooming. Clemens has started every game, started the second half of all but one game, finished nearly every game, played in all but a couple crucial series and took more than twice as many snaps as Fife.

Bellotti on Fife: 'His role has been a difficult one, and he's handled it very well. I have tremendous respect for Jason Fife.'

Meanwhile, Bellotti says Clemens 'has taken huge steps to arrive at that position' of being the one, true leader.

On the coordinators

Bellotti credits Aliotti, and his secondary, for the Ducks' resurgence the past two weeks; Cal had a long pass of 36 yards, and UCLA had a long of 22 yards.

'He's adjusted the scheme to really limit the opportunity for explosion plays,' Bellotti says.

The offense had 228 yards against UCLA, a week after getting 318 against Cal Ñ not great numbers, but the Ducks won.

Bellotti on Ludwig's job performance: 'He's done well. But I can't discuss anything in that regard at this point; it needs to be done at the end of the season.'

It's official

Through a news release, Bellotti says he and his wife, Colleen, have officially filed for divorce. Bellotti will remain in Eugene and retain joint custody of the couple's children. The announcement reassured everybody that Bellotti plans to stay as UO coach Ñ for now, anyway.

Athletic Director Bill Moos says he hasn't detected any signs that Bellotti is distracted by the divorce. 'It's fortunate that he has football, and he's pouring all of his energy into this season,' Moos says. 'Mike's a private guy, emotionally, and professionally he never gets too high or too low.'

Contact Jason Vondersmith at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .