Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart (28), shown here last year against Stanford, will be a mainstay in the backfield. The Ducks were 5-0 last year when Stewart ran for at least 100 yards and only 2-6 when he was held below the century mark. - AP

Ducks have something to prove

EUGENE — The frustration Oregon football fans experienced last year watching their Ducks lay an egg during a 38-8 loss to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl apparently was nothing compared to how the players felt.

That bitter taste to the season's end has lingered in their hearts and minds since, turning a typical offseason into one based solely on re-establishing their good name in 2007.

"Maybe we have a little bit more to prove this year than in years past," Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti said. "I think we're excited about that and the prospect of staying hungry and playing with a purpose this year, sort of a chip on our shoulder."

That chip-on-the-shoulder theme has run rampant through the Duck camp this summer, with Oregon players like junior tailback Jonathan Stewart still upset over his team's four-game losing streak to close last season.

"I came into this season, first of all, hungry to do something about what we did last year," he said. "We were what, 7-6, last season? That's crazy. I'm just hungry for the opportunity to change all that."

Stewart and company will have a chance to get the season off on the right foot beginning Saturday, when Oregon plays host to Houston at 12:30 p.m. at Autzen Stadium. The teams last met in 2005 in the season opener for both teams, with the Ducks prevailing 38-24 in Houston.

While the negatives of last season have provided inspiration to this year's group, Oregon certainly has some positives to build on from a year ago.

Buoyed by the performances of Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson, the Ducks led the Pac-10 Conference in rushing (182.2 ypg) last year for the first time since 1955. They also led in total offense (423.2 ypg) for the first time since records were made available in 1954, and led the Pac-10 in pass defense (173.5 ypg) for the second straight year.

Gone is offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, whose spread offense helped take the Ducks to new heights. His replacement, Chip Kelly, comes from NCAA Division I-AA New Hampshire College and utilizes a system very similar to Crowton's.

"The offense is basically the same as it was last year," senior quarterback Dennis Dixon said. "I think, by far, having Chip in our organization is a plus. He's making things to our liking, and to where we can all understand it better."

That, in itself, may prove more important than people know. Dixon said last year that "everything was too stressful" because the team didn't really know some of the play terminology and that led to added pressure.

Whether such confusion led to the numerous mistakes made by the offense last year — Oregon ranked 109th nationally in turnover margin thanks to 32 offensive miscues — will be put to the test beginning Saturday.

One thing, however, is clear: The Ducks have made possession of the football a priority for 2007 — and that starts at the quarterback position.

Dixon threw more interceptions (14) than touchdowns (12) last year, and his backup, Brady Leaf, wasn't much better (four INTs, six TDs).

"One of the keys to this offense is the distribution of the football," Bellotti said, "and that comes back to game-planning and decision-making by the quarterback, which is very, very key."

Dixon, who completed 197 of 322 passes for 2,143 yards last year, is well aware that better decision-making needs to be a focus for this season.

"Turnovers is the one thing that hurt the team dearly (last year)," he said. "Going into this year, as a quarterback , Brady and I have to put the team in the best position possible."

That position most likely involves turning and handing the ball to Stewart, Johnson or whomever lines up in the backfield. Oregon was 5-0 last year when Stewart eclipsed the 100-yard mark in rushing, and only 2-6 when the 5-foot-11, 230-pounder was held below that mark.

"I think we all expect Jonathan to do great things," Bellotti said, "and I think Jeremiah provides maybe one of the best 1-2 punches in our history in terms of the way they complement each other."

In recent years, Oregon has been most successful when the offense has consistently churned out positive yards in the backfield. While Joey Harrington may have received all the Heisman Trophy hoopla in 2001, it was a backfield of Maurice Morris and Onterrio Smith, who each rushed for more than 1,000 yards, that helped spark the Ducks to a No. 2 national ranking by season's end.

Bellotti said he expects Stewart's number of carries will increase this season, but added that the tailback position will probably touch the ball "25 to 30" times per game.

While that total may seem low for some, Stewart said he's not concerned with his number of carries this season.

"You can get your rhythm on the first carry, it just depends," said Stewart, who rushed for 981 yards and 10 touchdowns on 183 carries last year in spite of nagging injuries. "If you get a good run on your first carry then it goes on after that. The game of football is so sporadic, you can't really base anything on how many carries you get."

Besides, Stewart is well aware of how much of an impact Johnson can have when he gets the ball. The 5-10, 205-pounder spelled Stewart to the tune of 644 yards and 10 TDs on 103 carries.

"If I'm out of the game, we're not missing anything and if (Johnson's) out of the game, the team's definitely not missing anything," said Stewart, whose 5.4 yards per carry actually trailed Johnson (6.3). "Really and truly our whole running back depth chart is a talented group of backs. You can put anyone back there, I think, and not miss a beat."

When the Ducks do take to the air — and they most assuredly will since opponents will look to deny Stewart as much as possible — they'll have plenty of options.

Led by receivers Jaison Williams, Brian Paysinger, Garren Strong and Cameron Colvin, Oregon has the talent to attack all areas of the field.

Williams led Oregon with 68 receptions for 984 yards and six TDs last year in a breakthrough season, with Paysinger hauling in 34 passes for 451 yards and three scores.

Throw in tight ends Ed Dickson, who stands to be the Ducks' breakout player on offense, and Ryan Keeling, and the options per play become mind-boggling.

"It's almost like you're accumulating tools that you put in your toolbox and when the situation dictates that I need a hammer, well I go get this, if I need a screwdriver, we have this," said Kelly. "If your toolbox only has three things in it, then there's not a lot of things you can build."

And that includes re-tooling a winning tradition at Oregon.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail

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