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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Masoli makes a name for himself

Published: Dec 31, 2008 08:57AM

SAN DIEGO — For the second time in three seasons, 2009 might feature speculation about not just national title contention for Oregon, but also a Heisman Trophy candidacy.

The No. 15 Ducks probably inserted themselves into the national picture for next season with Tuesday’s 42-31 win over Oklahoma State in the Holiday Bowl. And after quarterback Jeremiah Masoli accounted for 364 yards of offense and four touchdowns, running back Jeremiah Johnson pronounced the sophomore “a Heisman candidate.”

“He’s a tremendous player,” Johnson said. “He’s grown up since Day 1. I can’t say nothing bad about the guy. He’s a real warrior.”

Masoli’s night Tuesday served as a microcosm of the Ducks’ performance as a whole. He got off to a slow start, thanks in part to some dropped passes. But after halftime Masoli was physically dominant, his efforts personified by a 41-yard touchdown run on which he flattened Cowboys safety Quinton Moore.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” UO offensive coordinator Chip Kelly said. “I can still picture the scene in the UCLA game where he ran a safety over. He’s a tough, tough, physical kid. Mentally tough, physically tough. Even when things weren’t going well early, it doesn’t bother him.”

Masoli ran for three touchdowns in the third quarter, and passed for a score in the fourth. Over the final three games of 2008, the junior college transfer accounted for 1,078 yards, including all three of his passing performances above 200 yards.

Having famously begun this season fifth on the depth chart and nursing a wrist injury, Masoli has become a dominant centerpiece in Oregon’s spread option. He threw an interception Tuesday, his first since the Ducks’ last loss, at California, but it was the rare blemish in an otherwise masterly display.

“He’s a hell of a football player,” UO center Max Unger said. “He made a lot of plays today. A lot of stuff he does goes unnoticed, in blitz pick-ups and routes and stuff. But he’s, if not the best, one of the best football players on the field.”

Masoli said his comfort level over the homestretch of the season “probably increased about 100 percent.”

“I felt I had a grasp of this offense,” he said. “But the reps and experience of the games, going through the experiences I went through, really helped me mature.”

At halftime Tuesday, Masoli was 8-of-18 passing for 135 yards and had rushed for eight yards. He finished the game 18-of-32 passing for 258 yards, with 106 rushing yards on 16 carries.

“It’s funny — when we recruited him, we said, look at this guy throwing the ball,” UO coach Mike Bellotti said. “He’s a great passer. He’s got a rocket arm, a quick release. We saw him move around, but he didn’t really run this style of offense. His running ability has pleasantly surprised us. He’s faster than people think. He’s a lot tougher, obviously.”

Moore, the OSU safety who Masoli turned into roadkill, could attest to that. Masoli matched his UO single-game record for quarterbacks with three rushing touchdowns, and set a new mark for rushing yards in a season by a UO quarterback with 710, breaking Reggie Ogburn’s record of 644 from 1979.

“He’s a big back,” Kelly said. “He gives you a little bit of an edge. He’s different than Dennis (Dixon), because Dennis was a speed guy and wasn’t going to run you over.”

Like Dixon last season, though, Masoli may one day find himself in the running for college football’s top individual award. Johnson certainly found him deserving, and its doubtful many others in attendance at the Holiday Bowl on Tuesday would have cared to argue.

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