TUCSON, Ariz. Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon proved Thursday that he's one of the nation's most valuable players.
The second-ranked team in the nation looked rather ordinary in his absence.
Oregon's national title hopes essentially ended as soon as Dixon aggravated a knee injury late in the first quarter of a 34-24 loss to Arizona. Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said afterward that he didn't expect Dixon to play again this season.
"I think there's some instability in the knee joint," Bellotti said. "He went out there and felt something shift. That obviously points to something more serious."
Dixon didn't want to think about the possibility that his college career was over.
"Hopefully, that's not the case," he said. "If it comes down to it, it's going to be kind of hard for me to swallow that because this team has too much going for it."
Oregon had even more going for it before Dixon's injury.
The Ducks led 8-7 when Dixon got hurt and added a 34-yard field goal two plays later. But the Ducks were outscored 24-0 over the next 15 minutes and never recovered.
Once Dixon headed into the locker room, the most dynamic players left on the field Mike Thomas and Antoine Cason were wearing Arizona uniforms. Thomas had touchdown catches of 34 and 46 yards, while Cason scored on a 42-yard interception return and a 56-yard punt return.
That dynamic duo assured that Oregon continued the season-long curse of the No. 2 ranking. USC, California, Boston College and USF lost earlier this season after moving to the No. 2 spot in the Associated Press poll.
ARIZONA 34, No. 2 OREGON 24
Offensive player of the game
Arizona WR Mike Thomas used his speed to turn a short completion into a 34-yard touchdown for the Wildcats' first points of the game. Thomas added a 46-yard score in the second quarter and finished the night with six catches for 125 yards. Honorable mention goes to Oregon TB Jonathan Stewart, who rushed for 131 yards on 28 carries even after Dennis Dixon's injury hampered the Ducks' passing attack.
Defensive player of the game
Arizona CB Antoine Cason scored on a 42-yard interception return early in the second quarter to put the Wildcats ahead for good. Cason also scored on a 56-yard punt return later in the second period and broke up five passes. Arizona also benefited from huge games by FS Nate Ness (two interceptions) and LB Spencer Larsen (16 tackles, 3 tackles for loss).
Turning point No. 1
Oregon appeared on the verge of putting Arizona away early when it owned an 8-0 lead and had first-and-goal from the Wildcats' 4. But Dixon's first-down pass bounced of the chest of WR Derrick Jones, allowing Ness to tip the ball with his left hand and pick it off with his right hand before racing down the Arizona sideline for a 45-yard interception return. Thomas capped Arizona's ensuing possession by turning a short reception into a 34-yard touchdown.
Turning point No. 2
The Ducks still owned an 11-10 lead when Cason's touchdown on a 42-yard interception return sparked a run of 24 consecutive points by Arizona.
This wasn't the first time Oregon quarterbacks had trouble staying healthy in Arizona. When Oregon played at Arizona two years ago, QB Kellen Clemens started for the Ducks and broke his left ankle. Dixon replaced Clemens and suffered a concussion. Oregon still won 28-21. "It's kind of ironic," Dixon said. "It's kind of deja vu here in Arizona."
What this means for Oregon
The Ducks (8-2 overall, 5-2 in the Pac-10) are out of national title contention and don't even control their destiny in the Pac-10 race. Oregon is a game behind Arizona State (9-1, 6-1) in the Pac-10 standings. The Sun Devils' conference loss is to the Ducks.
What this means for Arizona
The Wildcats (5-6, 4-4) probably would earn their first bowl bid in nine years if they win their regular-season finale Dec. 1 at Arizona State. Arizona hasn't earned a postseason invitation since beating Nebraska 23-20 in the 1998 Holiday Bowl.
What this means for the Stoops family
Arizona coach Mike Stoops should get whatever he wants for Christmas from his brother, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. Arizona's victory over Oregon should allow No. 4 Oklahoma to play for the national title if it wins its final two regular-season contests and the Big 12 Championship Game.
Oregon continued its non-traditional fashion sense Thursday by unveiling black pants to go with its white jerseys. Oregon has turned the ball over 10 times in its past two games with Arizona. The Ducks had six giveaways in a 37-10 loss to Arizona last season. Oregon's Jones returned to action Thursday after being suspended the last three games for a violation of team rules. Oregon has scored first in all 10 games it has played this year. Dixon went 5-of-8 with an interception before getting hurt. The interception and one of the other incompletions were dropped by Oregon receivers. Stewart, a junior, set a school record with his 12th career 100-yard game.
Oregon's setback may have been the most painful of them all. The game was an opportunity for Oregon to show the nation just why the Ducks deserved to remain ahead of Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri in the BCS standings. Oregon instead suffered the indignity of watching its title hopes fade away in a stadium that featured plenty of empty seats in the upper deck.
"It's extremely disappointing," Oregon linebacker Kwame Agyeman said. "I didn't want to finish the year out like this, but stuff happens sometimes."
Dixon sprained his left knee during the fourth quarter of a 35-23 victory over Arizona State two weeks ago. But the injury didn't prevent him from starting Thursday, nor did it keep him from capping the Ducks' first possession with a 39-yard touchdown run.
That touchdown showed the combination of athleticism and acumen that has helped make Dixon one of the game's most spectacular players.
Oregon faced fourth-and-3 when Dixon appeared to hand the ball to tailback Jonathan Stewart. Arizona defensive end Louis Holmes anticipated the handoff so well that he immediately stuffed Stewart behind the line of scrimmage. But Dixon still had the ball.
Dixon faked the handoff, paused for a split second, then raced through a huge hole around the right end. He wasn't even touched on his way to the end zone. The knee brace he was wearing certainly didn't bother him on that play.
"Coming into this game, I felt totally confident in everything," said Dixon, who had 62 passing yards and 34 rushing yards in less than a quarter.
The feeling didn't last.
Oregon owned an 8-7 lead and had moved into field-goal range when Dixon first faked a handoff to Stewart and later faked a shovel pass. He then took a couple of steps before his foot got caught in the grass. Dixon clutched his knee and rolled around in agony. Although he slowly walked off the field under his own power, Dixon wouldn't return,
"It shows you've got to play your heart out," Dixon said, "because you never know when you're going to make your last play."
Oregon already had withstood season-ending injuries to wide receivers Brian Paysinger and Cameron Colvin, backup tailback Jeremiah Johnson and starting middle linebacker John Bacon. Adding Dixon, perhaps the Heisman Trophy front-runner, to that list proved too much to overcome.
The Ducks appeared better equipped than most teams to handle an injury to a starting quarterback because they had an experienced reserve. Brady Leaf started the Ducks' final two games last year for an ineffective Dixon, but the younger brother of former San Diego Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf was a little too rusty in his most extensive action of the 2007 season.
Leaf completed just one of his first six passes. His third attempt of the night was picked off by Cason and returned for a go-ahead touchdown that sparked a 24-0 Arizona run.
"There's no excuses," said Leaf, who sprained his ankle early in the second half and ended up going 22-of-46 for 163 yards with two interceptions. "I just made some bad throws and some bad reads, and it hurt our team."
Leaf wasn't the only one making mistakes.
Oregon was penalized for roughing the passer and for having too many men on the field in a second-quarter drive. When free safety Matthew Harper misjudged a pass later in that drive, Thomas capitalized with a 46-yard touchdown catch. Even before Dixon got hurt, Oregon blew a shot at taking an early 15-0 lead when Nate Ness intercepted a pass that bounced off the chest of wide receiver Derrick Jones in the end zone.
The Ducks' fake punt attempt in the fourth quarter was foiled when Agyeman fumbled at the end of a 40-yard run that would have given Oregon a first down at Arizona's 22. That came after a holding penalty nullified Stewart's touchdown run in the third quarter, forcing Oregon to settle for a field goal after recovering a Willie Tuitama fumble at Arizona's 13.
"I can't say we were out of sorts," Bellotti said, "but it certainly did seem that way."
And they also couldn't get any breaks down the stretch after an outstanding second-half defensive effort allowed the Ducks to cut a 20-point deficit to seven.
The Wildcats were clinging to that lead late in the fourth quarter when they decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from Oregon's 36. Nicolas Grigsby was hit at the line before a second-effort surge gave him the necessary yard.
On the next play, Tuitama tripped over a blocker's leg as he received the snap. As his knee hit the ground, Tuitama handed off to Grigsby, who promptly fumbled to give Oregon one more chance.
Not so fast.
The call was reversed after replays showed Tuitama's knee hit the ground before he handed the ball to Grigsby. Four plays later, Jason Bondzio made a 46-yard field goal that extended the Wildcats' lead to 34-24 with 3:20 left.
The Ducks weren't very good Thursday night. Perhaps more important, they weren't very fortunate.
They can only hope they get better luck Friday, when they should have a better idea of whether Dixon can return to action this season. Their hopes of earning a BCS invitation could depend on it.