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COLLEGE FOOTBALL : The Ball’s in Their Hands : After a Slow Start, Oregon’s O’Neil Puts His Faith in Performance, Rather Than Statistics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Comparison shoppers, pump up that Rose Bowl football and run to daylight. It’s time to get your quarterback.

Kerry Collins of Penn State or Danny O’Neil of Oregon?

“People can match me up all they want with Kerry Collins,” O’Neil says.

OK, let’s try it. Collins is 6 feet 5, O’Neil is 6-2.

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“I’ll never be as tall, so that’s an easy matchup,” O’Neil says.

Collins is 235 pounds with a lineman’s neck and looks as if he spends time grazing in open fields. O’Neil is listed at 179 pounds and looks as if the only bars he frequents serve sushi or salad.

“I’m not as big as him, so that’s easy,” O’Neil says.

Penn State is 11-0, Oregon 9-3.

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“He’s won more games than me,” O’Neil says. “That’s an easy matchup.”

Otherwise, it’s probably dead even. But O’Neil says comparisons may be misleading.

“I have a lot of respect for him, but I don’t know, the comparisons are pretty easy. You can just check them off down the list,” O’Neil says. “But it’s whoever wins the football game.”

Oddsmakers don’t think that’s going to be O’Neil and the Ducks.

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Maybe. But O’Neil already has learned to recognize pressure when he sees it.

Pressure isn’t playing in the Rose Bowl against the undefeated, second-ranked Nittany Lions.

Pressure is being the quarterback of a 1-2 team and you’ve had five passes intercepted in the two losses.

That’s how Oregon began the season. O’Neil, who watched as two of the interceptions were returned for touchdowns, was certain of one thing.

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“I knew I wasn’t going to play that bad the whole year,” he says. “I knew the worst was out of the way.”

And he was right. The Ducks won eight of their last nine games and the last six in a row, putting their webbed feet in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 37 years.

O’Neil overcame his shaky start and a mysterious staph infection on one of his fingers, throwing for 1,756 yards and 20 touchdowns.

He also threw only two more interceptions the rest of the way, which brings us to this rare appearance by the Ducks in the Rose Bowl, something that last happened 13 years before O’Neil was born.

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Just don’t mention the word destiny to him.

“I’m not into destiny too much, to be honest with you,” O’Neil says. “I could care less about destiny. But I can tell you that we are a team this year that will do everything it takes to win.

“And I’m not too interested in where I fit into being the first Oregon quarterback since whenever to be in the Rose Bowl. My drive to win a Pac-10 championship was not brought about by trying to be a legend or somebody that would go down in the history books at Oregon. I wanted to do it for my team and myself and mainly the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It has been a long journey to the Rose Bowl for the senior from Newport Beach and Mater Dei, where he starred in football and basketball but also played volleyball and golf.

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Both of O’Neil’s brothers went to USC, but with Todd Marinovich as a sophomore with the Trojans, O’Neil thought he would play sooner in the Quack Attack at Oregon.

With the Ducks, he has put up some big numbers. In 1993, O’Neil set Oregon season records for completions, completion percentage and total offense.

Still, there were detractors and again there were the comparisons. Some believed O’Neil never would measure up to such former Oregon quarterbacks as Bill Musgrave, Dan Fouts and Chris Miller.

O’Neil played only five games as a freshman before dislocating the thumb on his passing hand, but he still threw for 703 yards. He passed for 2,152 yards as a sophomore, then really broke through in 1993 with the type of year quarterbacks dream about.

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O’Neil passed for 3,224 yards and had six 300-yard games in his junior season. He averaged 293.1 yards passing a game.

Despite it all, Oregon finished 5-6 and O’Neil got his share of the blame. He expected it, though, mainly because he knows the rules.

“Quarterbacks get too much credit and too much blame, but I knew that before I got here,” he says. “No, that’s not true. I learned it very quickly in my first season.”

And in his senior season, there was O’Neil throwing the winning touchdown pass in a comeback victory over Arizona that put Oregon in first place in the Pac-10 for good with three weeks to go. Maybe the best part about it was that among the people who saw it from the stands were Miller, Musgrave and the 1958 Oregon Rose Bowl team.

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How did O’Neil feel? The best, although he expects to feel even better once he gets in that Rose Bowl. Nothing can compare to that.


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