Friday, November 16, 2007

Black Thursday

The sucking sound you heard last night was the collective gasp of Duck fans everywhere as their dream season came to an abrupt end in the desert. After jumping out to a quick lead against the Arizona Wildcats on a 38-yard touchdown run, Dennis Dixon looked every bit the Heisman frontrunner, easily marching his team down the field three times in quick succesion. With 5 minutes to play in the first quarter, and the Ducks in scoring position, Dixon attempted to allude a tackler on an option play. His knee buckled, and Dixon crumpled to the turf.

The Ducks, looking shocked and rudderless without their leader, quickly went into a tailspin, giving up 24 quick points. The Ducks regrouped at halftime, holding the Wildcats to only three points in the second half, and pulling within a touchdown before Arizona iced it with a field goal and interception late.

Bye-bye National Championship. Bye-bye Heisman. And maybe, bye-bye season. Today the news came down. Torn ACL. Dixon's brilliant senior season and his career at Oregon is done.

Let's see...I make that six starters out with season-ending injuries. Are you kidding me?

Wide Receiver Brian Paysinger - torn ACL in practice
Linebacker A.J. Tuitele - broken foot vs. Cal
Wide Receiver Cameron Colvin - broken ankle vs. Wash. State
Running Back Jeremiah Johnson - torn ACL vs. Wash. State
Linebacker John Bacon - torn ACL vs. Arizona State

Each of these injuries was a huge loss, taking their toll on Oregon's depth at wide receiver and linebacker, but the Ducks repsonded and were able to fight through them and keep winning. Dixon, however, was the one player the Ducks couldn't afford to lose. His leadership and skill running the spread option attack made Oregon the nation's most dynamic offense and catapulted them into the national championship race.

And judging by Oregon's performance after no. 10 left the game, winning their remaining two games against UCLA and Oregon State is a tall order.

It's a crummy way to end the season, especially with so much riding on it. A school like Oregon can expect to compete for the conference crown once every 5-7 years, but the opportunity to be in the National Championship hunt happens maybe once every 20 years (or more).

This rash of injuries robbed Oregon of the chance to compete and prove what they were capable of. Unfortunately, it's not the first time this has happened to the Ducks.

In 2005, they lost quarterback Kellen Clemens who was on his way to a record-breaking season. Dixon and Brady Leaf split time replacing him, eeking out wins against Cal and Washington State. They walked over a pathetic Beaver team for their 10th win on their way to the Holiday Bowl where they narrowly lost to Oklahoma. It was a disappointing way to end the season, knowing the Ducks would have won handily with Clemens at the helm.

In 1998, the Ducks were 5-0 and looked unstoppable. But after injuries took their best defender (and the Pac-10's best linebacker) Peter Sirmon and running back Reuben Droughns (who rushed for a staggering 824 yards in only six games), the Ducks went 3-3 and limped their way into the Aloha bowl, losing to Colorado.

In 1988, sophomore quarterback Bill Musgrave led the Ducks to a 6-1 record with a chance to go to a bowl game for the first time since 1963 before succumbing to a broken collarbone against Arizona State. The Ducks lost their remaining five games.

One can't help but ask - What if? It makes me appreciate how special the 2001 season was, when Oregon crushed Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, finished 11-1, and no. 2 in the polls. Luck plays a role. If nothing else, this season is a testament to how the program has grown in twenty years. Depth has allowed Oregon in recent years to overcome injuries that would have devastated teams from 10-20 years ago.

Hopefully the Ducks can right the ship. They still have a shot at the Rose Bowl if they win their last two games. But if they don't, hats off to perhaps the best Duck team ever (if not the unluckiest); Certainly the best Duck offense ever.

As for Dixon, it turns out he injured his knee against Arizona State two weeks ago, but kept it quiet and tried to play through it, which makes his long touchdown run all the more amazing. You gotta love a guy who wants to win so much he tries to play with a torn ACL. We knew he was an amazing athlete and a classy guy, but Thursday he showed us his heart and determination. Next move for Dixon: surgery, rehab, and the NFL draft.

Happy Trails Dennis. We'll miss you.

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