No. 2 Oregon hopes to avoid upset in the desert

Oregon coach Mike Bellotti sensed a change in his players after the Ducks rose to No. 2 following Ohio State's loss to Illinois last weekend.

"I think there were a few more kids speaking up in practice, exhorting others to give great effort or to pay more attention," Bellotti said this week. "I like that. Given where we're at, obviously you would like to see that."

The Ducks have good reason to be fired up. Tonight at Arizona, Oregon (8-1, 5-1 Pac-10) opens a three-game stretch that could lead to a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game. Although nothing is certain with the BCS, the Ducks seemingly took a step toward New Orleans when the top-ranked Buckeyes fell at home.

The Ducks were off last weekend after defeating Southern California and Arizona State on consecutive Saturdays in the first two games matching Top 10 opponents in Autzen Stadium history. The time off gave some of the Ducks a chance to heal, including quarterback Dennis Dixon, who sprained his left knee against Arizona State on Nov. 3.

"I feel great," Dixon said. "The off week was a great week for everybody to get healthy."

The nationally televised game in Tucson could provide a showcase for Dixon's late-starting Heisman Trophy campaign. In a year in which no one has taken control of the race, Dixon has used a combination of accurate passing and nimble running to emerge as a top contender.

The senior ranks fourth nationally in passing efficiency &

he has 20 touchdown passes and only three interceptions &

and he ran for a score in each of Oregon's first eight games. Dixon's streak of touchdown runs ended against Arizona State, after he left the game with the knee injury early in the fourth quarter.

Arizona has struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks. But Dixon isn't Oregon's only weapon. Tailback Jonathan Stewart averages 126.9 yards rushing per game, ninth in the country.

The Ducks average 42.8 points and 510.5 yards, both fifth in the country.

"Everything just goes through those two guys," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "They have a lot of weapons offensively that spread you out."

Picked to finish sixth in the Pac-10 by media assigned to the conference, the Ducks have responded to a heartbreaking late September loss to California by winning four straight games. That's a dramatic change from a year ago, when Oregon opened the season 4-0 before losing to the Golden Bears and skidding to a 7-6 record.

"We started off (2006) real good and we had high hopes and we started looking ahead," Dixon said. "This team is totally different."

The Ducks would be wise not to look past Arizona. The Wildcats (4-6, 3-4) staggered out of the gate but have won their past two games, quieting speculation that Stoops would be fired at season's end.

A spread offense installed by new offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes is finally hitting its stride. Arizona has scored 82 points in the past two weeks, and quarterback Willie Tuitama has eight touchdown passes and one interception in that span.

The Wildcats aren't likely to be intimidated by the Ducks after pounding them 37-10 last season in Autzen Stadium. But Oregon isn't the same team that Arizona routed a year ago.

"They are playing with a lot of confidence," Stoops said. "That is the biggest difference. They are a much more confident team than when we played them a year ago."

In each of Stoops' first three seasons at Arizona, the Wildcats have upset a Top 25 team in Tucson. They defeated No. 18 Arizona State 34-27 in November 2004, ripped No. 7 UCLA 52-14 in November 2005 and knocked off No. 8 California 24-20 last November.

If Stoops can pull off another upset, it would boost his brother, Bob Stoops of Oklahoma. The Sooners are fourth in the BCS standings.

A year ago, Oregon defeated Oklahoma with the help of a controversial call by a Pac-10 officiating crew in Eugene. With that incident as a backdrop, Bellotti was asked if it felt as if his staff were coaching against both Stoops brothers this week.

"We've felt like that every time we've played them," Bellotti said. "We'll take on that challenge."

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