By Bud Withers
Biggest college football game in Eugene since ... ? Never? Never swoops up a lot of territory, but the game Saturday matching No. 6 California and the 11th-ranked Ducks pits the teams with the best collective ratings ever to play on Eugene turf. Of course, it's still early and rankings are hardly solidified, but it appears safe to call this the best early season matchup in history at Oregon (or at least since Hugo Bezdek and Shy Huntington patrolled the sideline for the Ducks nine decades ago). ESPN's "College GameDay" needed no convincing. It will be in town for its ninth visit to a Pac-10 site, and only the second to the Northwest (Eugene has both of them). "It's the best thing that could happen," said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti. "In this day and age, it's the mark of having arrived." Hyperbole, perhaps, except this matchup is so succulent for its offensive potential and entertainment value that it seems hard to oversell. Oregon has averaged 48.5 points against a better schedule than a lot of people have played, and Cal averages 41.5.
The outcome might tilt on which quarterback has the better day. Oregon's Dennis Dixon is one of six Division I passers not to have thrown an interception. He has 11 touchdowns and a gaudy 188.1 efficiency rating. His ascendancy is remarkable, considering both he was bad enough at the end of 2006 to be benched for the entire Civil War game, and he spent most of the summer playing baseball. "Last spring and this fall camp, I don't know if he threw an interception," said Bellotti. "He was being a little choosier with his throws."
Bellotti decided this year to have his team elect season-long captains, and he said, "When Dennis arrived was when the team elected him a captain. That, to me, was when he won the respect of his teammates." Cal's Nate Longshore, meanwhile, must prove he can lead the Bears to a meaningful road victory. His best Pac-10 triumphs away from home last year were at Oregon State and Washington State. But back to that biggest-game-ever-in-Eugene debate. Some of the other candidates:
• Michigan, 2003: The Wolverines were third-ranked when No. 22 Oregon upset them 31-27.
• Washington, 2000: The Huskies were No. 6 when the 20th-ranked Ducks won 23-16 in front of the loudest crowd I've ever heard — including those at Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Georgia and Notre Dame. Washington tight end Jerramy Stevens thought so, too, saying, "I never heard a snap count all day."
• Arizona, 1994: The Ducks had to have this one to sustain their surprise Rose Bowl run after "The Pick" to beat Washington the week before. They got it, winning 10-9, but their last two victories to clinch the Pasadena berth came on the road.
• Oregon State, 1957: Now we're talking Hayward Field days. Oregon was 15th, and in a battle of 7-2 teams, facing an OSU club that rose as high as No. 7 earlier in the season. The Beavers won 10-7, no doubt grating mightily on the Ducks but not costing them a Rose Bowl bid — OSU couldn't go because of the no-repeat rule in effect at the time.