Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Statesman Journal: Eugene, Ducks in spotlight as ESPN, Cal come to town


EUGENE -- Oregon tailback Jonathan Stewart laughed at the hypothetical image. No, he won't be painting his face yellow and green for the ESPN College GameDay show.  But many Oregon fans likely will go to extremes via face paint, signs, and funky hairdos for a chance to be seen on college football's premier pregame show, which will air from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Saturday at a site to be determined at or near Autzen Stadium.  Will Lee Corso wear the Duck headgear when it's time for his prediction of the Oregon-California game? Or will he draw the ire of fans by donning the Cal Bear? No matter, it's all in good fun.  What matters most is that Eugene will be the capital of the college football universe. "It's something that you want, the national attention," Stewart said. Fans will be flocking to Eugene before sunrise. By the time kickoff arrives at 12:30 p.m., they'll be in a frenzy. The game between No. 11 Oregon and No. 6 Cal figures to have Rose Bowl and possibly national championship implications. Having ESPN's Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, and host Chris Fowler in town gives it the final stamp of big-game authenticity.

"Since I've been here it probably rivals the (2006) Oklahoma game and maybe the Civil War a few years ago when we were 9-1," offensive tackle Geoff Schwartz said. "This is a huge game for us." Since ESPN College GameDay began producing its telecasts from college campuses in 1993, the show has originated from Eugene once, for the Oregon-UCLA game Sept. 23, 2000. The Ducks won that game 29-10, and went on to finish 10-2 and defeat Texas in the Holiday Bowl. Oregon players will be waking up in their hotel rooms when the GameDay show begins and won't be part of the festivities. "But it is a good deal to wake up and see that they're there," linebacker Kwame Agyeman said. "It adds more excitement, but it's for fans more than us." It also provides free marketing for Oregon. "It's exposure for the entire university," said coach Mike Bellotti, who was mum on making a pregame appearance on the show. "It's not just Oregon football. It's Oregon athletics. It's the University of Oregon. It's the town of Eugene. I think it's really sort of a neat deal." Not to be lost in the hype is the game itself. Oregon and Cal are 4-0, and the winner controls its own destiny in the Pac-10. That is, of course, if the winner can knock off No. 1 USC down the road. The Ducks (Oct. 27) and Bears (Nov. 10) both play the Trojans at home.

Ducks quarterback Dennis Dixon is playing like a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, and it's tempting to get caught up in a season that appears to have so much promise. But fast starts have turned into late season fades for Oregon in recent years. The Ducks were 4-0 last season before absorbing a 45-24 loss at Cal. Oregon went on to lose its last four games, punctuated by a 38-8 debacle against BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl to finish 7-6. The 2003 team was 4-0 and coming off an upset of then-No. 3 Michigan at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks were blown out the following week at home by Washington State, and finished the season 8-5. "I'm treating it as all the games. We're taking it one game at a time," said Dixon, offering a familiar cliché. "It's the only game this week. We've got to focus and finish." While it's true that this is the only game Oregon will play this week, the outcome will affect the remainder of the season. There's also this subplot: Cal coach Jeff Tedford, who was the Ducks' offensive coordinator under Bellotti for four years and left after the 2001 Fiesta Bowl season, has turned the Bears into the second best team in the Pac-10. Tedford and Bellotti often compete for the same players, and winning this game on a national stage could influence potential recruits. College football fans across the nation will be watching.

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