Dixon looking to rebound from '06 loss to Cal
Life was good in Eugene, Ore., at this very same point last year. The Ducks entered their Oct. 7, 2006, date at Cal with an unblemished record through four games and the future looking bright for junior quarterback Dennis Dixon, who had completed 65 percent of his attempts with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of six-to-two. But it took a short 45 seconds -- on the Ducks' first offensive play from scrimmage -- for the entire climate to change. It took just 45 seconds for that feeling of promise to turn to panic.What went wrong
On the Ducks' first offensive play from scrimmage, Dixon was intercepted by Cal's Brandon Hampton and returned to the Oregon 7-yard line. It was all downhill from that point on. It didn't take long to realize Cal's defensive game plan. Instead of sitting back and reacting to Dixon's moves, the Bears dictated the tempo. Defensive coordinator Bob Gregory was aggressive and gave Dixon a lot of complex reads to make as a passer. It took too long for Dixon to process the information, which led to most of his problems. In addition to sacking Dixon twice, Cal's defense was consistently in the quarterback's face when he went to throw and made him pay for holding onto the ball too long by repeatedly knocking him to the turf. Cal's defensive line got good penetration on its own, especially up the middle. Also, the Ducks couldn't seem to find an answer for LB Zack Follett, who made a huge impact -- both against the run and as a pass rusher -- as seemingly a designated blitzer throughout the game. Instead of becoming conservative with the lead, Cal simply turned up the heat. In fact, during five second-quarter possessions that I charted, Cal rushed at least five defenders on nine of Oregon's 11 designed passing plays (10 passes, one sack). The two times the Bears didn't blitz, they crowded the line with eight defenders to give Dixon the impression they were coming, only to back off into a Cover 2 zone with four rushing and seven dropping. One common counter to an overaggressive defense is to use a screen pass to catch it out of position. I credit Oregon for trying, but I give more credit to Cal's defenders for instinctively sniffing it out and swallowing up the receiver immediately. By loading up the line of scrimmage, Cal's mind-set was to stuff the run on its way to pressuring the quarterback. Once Oregon got behind it was much harder to maintain the type of run-pass balance it wanted. The end result was RB Jonathan Stewart, who entered that game as the Pac-10's leading rusher, mustering only 25 yards on 18 carries.
Dixon threw three interceptions in the 45-24 loss at Cal. Adding to the embarrassment was the fact that Dixon, who grew up 15 miles from Berkeley, had 60 friends and family members in attendance to witness the debacle.
Repeat or rebound
Dixon already has thrown for 932 yards and 11 touchdowns and run for 291 yards and four scores. More impressive than any of those numbers is the zero that currently resides in Dixon's interception column. Sure, an argument can be made that Dixon hasn't faced top-notch competition and that he's just as vulnerable to a collapse versus Cal this time around as he was a year ago. After breaking down last year's game tape against Cal and comparing it to tape of Dixon so far this season, here's my argument against it.
• Decisive … So far this season, Dixon has shown no signs of the indecisiveness that plagued him in last year's loss to Cal. Dixon seems to be much more comfortable with the reads new offensive coordinator Chip Kelly is asking him to make and he doesn't lock on to his primary target like before. Completion distribution is typically a good indicator of whether or not a quarterback is seeing the entire field. So far this season, Dixon is acing that test with 10 different teammates getting in on the pass-catching action, including six players with six or more receptions through four games.
• … yet patient. Although Dixon is clearly making quicker decision, he's doing so without panicking. There's a big difference. A year ago if Dixon's primary target didn't break open, his first instinct was to tuck the ball and run. Now that he is seeing the entire field and understands his progressions, Dixon isn't afraid to hang in the pocket while checking down to his second and third reads.
• Better balance. Kelly is doing a better job of balancing out the attack by focusing more on the run this season. He's also playing to Dixon's strengths by incorporating even more shotgun read-option into the equation than the team ran a year ago under Gary Crowton. Stewart is a home run threat at the running back position (as seen on his long of 88 yards) and he's also big and strong enough to wear a defense down during the course of a game. Stewart's backup, Jeremiah Johnson, is also a talented runner who is averaging 5.7 yards per carry. With Stewart, Dixon and Johnson handling most of the 38.8 carries per game thus far, Oregon's offense has become more of a physical, ball-control unit.
• Maturity. Instead of sticking around to work out with the football team, Dixon spent most of his summer playing minor league baseball in Orlando. When things didn't go as well on the baseball diamond as planned, it seemed to refocus Dixon on football. It seems this experience provided a much-needed wake-up call for Dixon. Since his return to Eugene, coaches and teammates have noticed significant improvements in Dixon's work ethic and confidence. Now when things go wrong during the course of a game, Dixon not only displays the mental toughness and maturity to shrug it off, but also the leadership skills to keep his teammates positive.
• Better situation. Playing in the familiar confines of Autzen Stadium will make presnap audibles and overall communication that much easier for Dixon and Oregon's offense. Furthermore, Cal's defense could be undermanned on Saturday. Defensive linemen Matt Malele and Rulon Davis both were sidelined with foot injuries in last week's win over Louisiana Tech, and Follett missed the first game of his career with a stinger. Malele, Davis and Follett combined for 26 tackles in Cal's first three games this season -- and, as mentioned, Follett played a big role as a pass-rusher in last year's contest. Cal's defense was able to stay fast by keeping fresh. With questions regarding the health of three key contributors, keeping the pass-rush heat on Dixon won't be nearly as easy this time around.
• Bottom line: Oregon might not come out on top of Saturday's Pac-10 showdown, but I would be shocked if Dixon is the reason.