Dixon has the Ducks on rise

Times Staff Writer

First-year Oregon offensive coordinator Chip Kelly said he didn’t want gory details.

He didn’t need to know why Dennis Dixon lost grip of the team at the end of last year’s 7-6 season, or why the talented, dual-threat quarterback finished with more interceptions (14) than touchdown passes (12).

It was February, and Kelly had just arrived in Eugene after 13 years at Division I-AA New Hampshire.


Kelly and Dixon met over a clean slate.

“He had three coordinators in four years,” Kelly said Tuesday from Eugene. “I told him we were both on the same side. I said the more successful he is the more successful I am. We didn’t have time to figure out if we liked each other or not. We were kind of thrown into this.”

It was the beginning of a beautiful partnership.

Dixon and Kelly have teamed up to turn Oregon’s spread into the Shred Offense, setting up an intriguing matchup on Saturday when No. 9 USC plays at No. 5 Oregon. Both teams are 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the Pacific 10 Conference.

Oregon ranks second nationally in total offense, averaging 550 yards a game. The Ducks gain an average of 6.94 yards a play while scoring 46.6 points per game -- the kind of numbers USC’s offense used to put up.

USC Coach Pete Carroll, on Tuesday’s conference coaches’ call, described Oregon as “ridiculously effective.”

USC counters with the nation’s third-ranked defense, coming off a shutout win at Notre Dame.

“They’re the best offense we’ve seen probably since we’ve been here,” Carroll said of Oregon.

Dixon, a senior, leads the Ducks from head to webbed toe. He is the team’s second-leading rusher with 416 yards and seven touchdowns and he has completed 69% of his passes for 1,728 yards and 16 touchdowns with only three interceptions.

Oregon has been running the spread offense for three years, but never like this.

Kelly took over when Gary Crowton left to become offensive coordinator at Louisiana State, and he has added elements to college football’s most en vogue offense.

Kelly is more rooted in the West Virginia spread, pioneered by Rich Rodriguez, in which running the ball is just as important as the pass. While at New Hampshire, Kelly visited Clemson in 1999 when Rodriguez was the coordinator there.

“You need balance on the field,” Kelly said. “I think that’s the one thing we’ve done.”

Last year, Oregon averaged 182 yards rushing a game and 241 yards passing. This year, the Ducks are averaging 294 yards rushing and 256 yards passing.

Oregon has scored 50 or more points in four of its six wins. Fresno State Coach Pat Hill was left stunned following a 52-21 loss to Oregon in Eugene on Sept. 15.

“Oregon has the highest powered offense that we have seen in a long time,” he said.

Dixon is the one dialing it all in, which wasn’t always the case last year when he and Brady Leaf shared the position. Dixon started the first 11 games, but the Ducks lost five of their last seven, including their last four, after a 4-0 start. Leaf started the last two games.

Dixon said there were “a lot of egos” that helped contribute to last year’s fade.

He rebounded at spring camp and appeared destined for a fantastic fall when he did something that didn’t make Coach Mike Bellotti very happy.

Dixon decided to play minor league summer baseball for the Atlanta Braves, who selected him in the fifth round of June’s amateur draft.

An outfielder, Dixon had been a 20th-round pick by Cincinnati out of the Bay Area’s San Leandro High.

Bellotti told at the time he thought Dixon would be better served “reading defenses rather than reading curveballs.”

Dixon said he was just keeping his career options open.

“You’re going to have your critics,” he said in a phone interview after Monday’s practice. “I was just looking at my future. . . . You come to college to find a job. I felt it was a job.”

Dixon learned from baseball his future was probably in football. He hit .176 in 74 at-bats in stints with the Braves’ rookie team in Orlando and the Class-A team in Danville, Va.

Yet, there was speculation in Eugene that Dixon might not return to football.

Kelly visited Orlando and found Dixon committed to Oregon’s cause.

“I don’t think people knew how hard he worked on football while he was down there,” Kelly said.

Dixon said he studied film and threw passes between baseball games.

Kelly thinks playing baseball helped Dixon as a football player.

“He matured mentally,” Kelly said. “Other guys [in Eugene] were lifting and running, but he was facing game after game of competition. The whole experience, it’s not all glitz and glamour. Staying at Motel 6 and traveling by bus puts it in perspective a bit.”

Even Bellotti says now that summer ball did not lead to Dixon’s ruin.

“Although I’ve said before the timing wasn’t great, it probably taught him some things about competing,” Bellotti said.

Dixon returned to Eugene more focused than ever.

“I’ve seen growth and maturity of a guy who at times would guess a little bit last year,” Bellotti said. “I don’t think he guesses now. He knows what he’s doing.”

Dixon’s season has been almost perfect.

After throwing 11 touchdowns in Oregon’s first four wins, Dixon threw his first two interceptions of the year in the final four minutes of the Ducks’ 31-24 loss to California on Sept. 29.

Dixon, though, did lead his team down the field in the final minute as Oregon came within inches from sending the game to overtime before Cameron Colvin fumbled through the end zone for a game-ending touchback.

Last year, after a 45-24 loss at Cal, Oregon fell apart.

The Ducks responded this year by scoring 53 and 55 points in wins over Washington State and Washington.

With four top-10 teams losing last weekend, Oregon moved to No. 5 in the Bowl Championship Series standings.

“Everyone knew the season wasn’t over,” Dixon said of the Cal loss. “You never know how it’s going to go in college football.”