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Dixon plays big enough for Ducks

Times Staff Writer

EUGENE, Ore. -- All week long, Dennis Dixon kept one thing in mind.

As the Oregon quarterback prepared to face USC and the nation’s third-ranked defense, he wasn’t thinking about long passes or mad scrambles.

“We weren’t expecting any kind of explosive plays,” he said. “You’ve just got to dink and dunk ‘em.”

It was a paradigm shift for a team that ranked second in the nation, scoring more than 46 points a game, and a quarterback known for his big-play potential.

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Dixon showed a different side at Autzen Stadium on Saturday, calmly managing a no-huddle offense, completing key passes and running when necessary. His steady performance not only helped fifth-ranked Oregon to a 24-17 victory, it reinforced his candidacy for the Heisman Trophy.

“When he sees an opportunity, he seizes it,” USC linebacker Brian Cushing said. “That’s what great players do.”

His numbers were not gaudy, nothing extraordinary about 157 yards passing and 76 more on the ground, including a short touchdown run. The Trojans actually outgained Oregon, 378 yards to 339.

But Dixon converted on USC errors and, just as important, finished with no turnovers.

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Compare that to last year at the Coliseum, when he had a pass intercepted, leading to a Trojans touchdown. The more he struggled, the more he split time with backup Brady Leaf.

In recent days, Coach Pete Carroll referenced the need to pressure Dixon, to “bang him around.”

But his teammates and coaches say the senior has matured. Though much of the nation saw his two late turnovers in a loss to California, he entered the USC game with a 69% completion rate and 16 touchdown passes against only three interceptions.

“Dennis is more confident in both the running game and the passing game,” Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti said. “And our team is more confident in him.”

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That poise translated into a quarterback who lined his team up quickly on Saturday, took signals from the sideline and got the right plays called. A quarterback who made intelligent reads on the option. A quarterback who dropped back and patiently scanned all of his receivers.

Also, a guy who knew when to take off running.

Whenever the USC defense dropped too deep into pass coverage, Dixon sprinted away from the rush for key gains. As linebacker Rey Maualuga said: “That killed us.”

Dixon mixed the run and pass on a first-quarter drive that ended with a third-down run for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. He did it again at the end of the half, moving the Ducks close enough for a field goal and a 10-3 lead.

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Oregon tailback Jonathan Stewart said he fed off that success in running for 103 yards and two touchdowns.

“Dennis’ scrambling in the first half got things moving,” Stewart said, adding: “He’s that good. He can make anybody miss.”

Just as important were the occasions when Dixon threw the ball away or took a sack without trying to force the pass.

Oregon’s margin of victory came on a fourth-quarter drive in which he took advantage of a USC turnover by completing a 17-yard pass, then converting a third and six on the ground before Stewart scored from a yard out.

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The victory keeps the Ducks at the forefront of the national championship race. It might also have jump-started a “Dixon for Heisman” campaign.

“Are you kidding?” Stewart asked. “Of course people should be thinking of him.”

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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