The huge Oregon billboard that was draped from a downtown Los Angeles hotel in 2002 is long gone.
So are the signs featuring Duck football players near Madison Square Garden and in Times Square in New York.
The bravado and marketing blitz surrounding Oregon’s flirtation with a national-title run in 2001 faded with the team’s fortunes the last three years. In 2004, Oregon had its first losing season in Coach Mike Bellotti’s decade with the Ducks.
“We just kind of lost our swagger there for a little bit,” Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens said this week.
But with Clemens operating out of a new spread offense, there are signs that Oregon might be primed for a return to prominence.
The Ducks improved to 3-0 and moved into the national rankings with a comeback victory over Fresno State last week. On Saturday, No. 24 Oregon takes aim at top-ranked USC (2-0), which visits sold-out Autzen Stadium for a Pacific 10 Conference opener.
“They’ve been on top,” USC quarterback Matt Leinart said. “They had a down year last year, but before that they were rolling.”
Clemens, who ran Oregon’s scout team in 2001, said the Ducks are making strides toward reclaiming their once-lofty status. “A win over USC would obviously push it along very rapidly,” he said, chuckling.
The Ducks, backed by Oregon alumnus and Nike founder Phil Knight, already enjoy perks usually associated with the nation’s best programs. They have state-of-the-art training facilities, cutting-edge equipment and stylish uniforms.
And while Bellotti stopped well short of blaming his team’s struggles last season on cushy locker rooms and plasma-screen televisions, he did say, “We lost some of the character, some of the grit.”
USC’s rise to the top coincided with Oregon’s fall.
The Trojans’ 44-33 win at Oregon in 2002 started quarterback Carson Palmer on his run to the Heisman Trophy. USC went on to win a share of the Pac-10 title and earned its first berth in a bowl championship series game.
The Trojans have since won consecutive national titles and produced another Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback in Leinart. Last week’s 70-17 rout over Arkansas extended USC’s winning streak to 24 games.
Oregon has traveled a different trail since quarterback Joey Harrington led the Ducks to their best seasons in school history.
The Ducks compiled a 10-2 record in 2000, including a victory over Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Before the next season, Harrington’s image was installed in New York and running back Maurice Morris appeared on a sign off the 405 freeway in Los Angeles as Oregon’s marketing department attempted to capitalize on the Ducks’ success and raise awareness with potential recruits.
In 2001, Oregon kept rolling. The Ducks won their first six games, including a 24-22 victory over USC in Pete Carroll’s first season, before suffering their only defeat at Stanford.
Oregon finished the regular season 10-1 and was ranked second behind Miami in both the Associated Press media poll and the coaches’ poll. But the BCS title-game matchup, produced by a formula combining the polls with computer rankings and other factors, featured unbeaten Miami against Nebraska, which had been routed by Colorado.
Bellotti described the BCS as “a bad disease, like cancer.” Then his team went out and beat Colorado, 38-16, in the Fiesta Bowl.
A few days later, Bellotti attended the Rose Bowl game between Miami and Nebraska. At halftime, with Miami ahead, 34-0, Bellotti told reporters, “We’d like to have had a shot at them. We would have liked to have had a chance to do something here.”
Before the next season, Oregon spent $40,000 to plaster a 144-by-94-foot image of three Duck receivers on the north side of the Hotel Figueroa, not far from USC’s campus.
Oregon once again won its first six games but then lost five of its last six, including the defeat by USC, which had emblazoned the Oregon billboard image on the playbooks of Trojan receivers during game week. The Ducks lost to Wake Forest in the Seattle Bowl and finished 7-6.
Oregon started fast again in 2003, defeating then third-ranked Michigan at Autzen Stadium to improve to 4-0. But the Ducks lost three in a row and four of their next five. A loss to Minnesota in the Sun Bowl ended an 8-5 season.
Last season, Oregon finished 5-6 and missed a bowl game appearance for the first time since 1996. The Ducks were only 3-3 at Autzen Stadium, traditionally one of the toughest places to play for visiting teams.
“We had lost some of the desire and the swagger and the understanding of what it takes to win,” Bellotti said. “It’s not about your fans. It’s not about the edifice or the building, it’s about the character of the players and I think we have that back.”
Bellotti, who groomed California Coach Jeff Tedford and Arizona State Coach Dirk Koetter among others, hired former Brigham Young coach Gary Crowton as offensive coordinator during the off-season. The Ducks have installed a scheme that takes full advantage of Clemens’ ability to throw and run.
Clemens ranks third nationally in total offense, averaging 364 yards a game. He has passed for 955 yards and eight touchdowns without an interception and has rushed for 160 yards.
Oregon began the season with victories at Houston and against Montana before defeating Fresno State, when Clemens completed 28 of 38 passes for 332 yards and four touchdowns.
Now comes USC.
Because of the Pac-10’s scheduling quirks, Oregon has not played the Trojans since their last visit to Autzen Stadium in 2002.
Clemens is aware that his team goes into Saturday’s game holding a unique distinction, as the only Pac-10 opponent that has not lost to the Trojans during their winning streak.
“I’d like to keep it that way,” he said.
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Oregon has won four of six games against USC since Mike Bellotti became the Ducks’ head coach in 1995. The schools did not meet in 1995, 1996, 2003 or 2004:
*--* Year Result 1997 at USC 24, Oregon 22 1998 at Oregon 17, USC 13 1999 at Oregon 33, USC 30 (3 OT) 2000 Oregon 28, at USC 17 2001 at Oregon 24, USC 22 2002 USC 44, at Oregon 33
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Mike Bellotti took over the Oregon football program in 1995. Last year was his only losing season:
*--* YEAR REC. AP* 1995 9-3 18th 1996 6-5 -- 1997 7-5 -- 1998 8-4 21st 1999 9-3 19th 2000 10-2 7th 2001 11-1 2nd 2002 7-6 -- 2003 8-5 -- 2004 5-6 --
*Season-ending Associated Press ranking