Dixon gets his shot to lead Ducks

11/3/2005 - Oregon Ducks

Everything was coming together for Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens. Then his left fibula snapped in two just above his ankle.

Season over.

Now those whispers that were rising toward national audibility, rasping that perhaps there was yet another Heisman Trophy candidate on the West Coast, are silent.

A guy falls on his leg -- snap -- and a record-setting career ends instantly, just when Oregon was rerouting its season back toward the nation's elite.
Doggone funny how stuff happens, eh?

"There's been some tears -- I'm not going to lie," Clemens said. "It's not the ideal ending; it's not storybook. It's just the way it is. At least I went out while I was playing

Playing well? Clemens still ranks fifth in the nation and tops in the Pac-10 in total offense with 329 yards per game. When he went down at Arizona two weeks ago, he had 19 touchdown passes and just four interceptions running the Ducks' new spread-option offense.

Of course, when Clemens, who finished his career with 8,090 yards of total offense -- just 50 yards short of Bill Musgrave's school record -- hobbled out to practice Tuesday for the first time since surgery last week, the message was clear: His season is over; 15th-ranked Oregon's is not.

Enter sophomore Dennis Dixon, who must hoist the program onto his shoulders Saturday against No. 23 California inside the pressure-packed frenzy of Autzen Stadium.

"When I talk to him, I don't think I'm going to put it like that," Clemens said.

Dixon himself left the Arizona game after four plays because of a concussion, so the Ducks' bye week landed at a serendipitous time.

It allowed Dixon to get his head straight in more ways than one. Besides letting him get healthy, it gave the speedy, 6-foot-4, 192-pound former Parade All-American from San Leandro, Calif., an extra week to digest a complicated offense and convince a veteran team that he can lead them.

"I expect great things from Dennis," coach Mike Bellotti said. "I expect at some point we're all going to say, 'Wow!'"

This isn't Dixon's first rodeo. He played well coming off the bench against USC -- Oregon's lone defeat and Clemens' only poor performance -- and, for the season, he has completed 15 of 20 passes for 130 yards with two interceptions and a touchdown. He also has rushed for 66 yards.

"He's done a good job of moving the team when he has played, of being a weapon on offense," Bellotti said. "I don't see that changing."

With a pair of capable tailbacks, senior Terrence Whitehead and freshman Jonathan Stewart; a deep group of receivers led by Demetrius Williams; and a surprisingly stout offensive line that has yielded only 10 sacks, Dixon won't have to do it alone.

He will have to learn how to take control of a huddle and win over a veteran team.

"I'm a quiet leader," Dixon said, "but I can get it done."

It figures to be in his favor that many of the Ducks' juniors and seniors remember signing with a program that spent the 2000 and 2001 seasons in the nation's top-10 but since has slid into mediocrity under their watch.

From 1999 through a 6-0 start in 2002, Oregon went 36-6. The Ducks were 15-17 from that point through 2004, their first losing season since 1993.
In response, Bellotti, the dean of Pac-10 coaches in his 11th year at the Ducks' helm, boldly revamped his offense, and a 7-1 record validates the overhaul. Still, Oregon hasn't raised many eyebrows nationally this season.

Cal is the last team on the schedule with a winning record -- Oregon and UCLA don't play each other -- so everyone knows what's at stake, including Dixon.

That's where Clemens can help. Dixon calls him "a mentor," and the title fits because Clemens has seen it all. He has seen the Ducks featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and booed in their own stadium.

Last week, Clemens was dealing with a plate being screwed into his fibula, so he didn't have much time to chat. He left Dixon a voice mail with a simple message: "I'm here."

"Dennis' physical tools are unbelievable," Clemens said. "The only thing he needs are reps. There's no substitute for game experience."

Bellotti said the offense won't change much with Dixon, though a playbook that resembled a couple of stacked copies of "War and Peace" likely will become a CliffsNotes version the rest of the way.

It's a matter of finding what Dixon feels comfortable with and building his confidence.

Meanwhile, Clemens will be back on his feet in three to five weeks. He probably won't get to honor his Senior Bowl invitation, which certainly validated him as an elite NFL prospect, but he expects to be full-speed by the NFL combine.

Until then, he'll act as an unofficial quarterbacks coach, living vicariously through his teammates.

He might not get his happy ending, but that doesn't mean the Ducks can't get theirs.

"There's no need to panic," Clemens said. "Dennis is going to get a lot of help. He won't have to do it alone."

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.