O'Neil reaffirms role as a leader

By Patrick Klein

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Danny O'Neil officially started his 1994 season with seven minutes and 44 seconds left in the fourth quarter of last week's game against Washington.

That was when the Huskies punched in a touchdown to take a 20-17 lead. With the Ducks starting from their own 2-yard line, and the team still holding on to dimming Rose Bowl hopes, O'Neil trotted out to take the field and control of the offense.

"I didn't say anything to the team," O'Neil said of meeting the team before the first play of the drive that will go down in Oregon history. "That is not the time to be a cheerleader. I just looked in the guys' eyes and they looked in mine. Then we went to work."

His year up to that point had been a series of injuries and disappointments.

Coming off a season that saw him pass for 3,224 yards and rank 13th nationally in total offense, O'Neil began his senior season with a solid performance against undermanned Division II Portland State, but then the wheels came off the bus in consecutive losses to Hawaii and Utah.

During that time, O'Neil began to have trouble with his throwing hand, and it was discovered that he had an infection that caused his hand to swell. He sat out the USC game, a game the Ducks won, 22-7, because of the injury. On top of his otherwise dismal numbers, seven interceptions and only 121 yards passing a game, came the persistent growlings that O'Neil was incapable of leading his team back to a fourth-quarter victory in an important game. Now, against the then-No. 7 Huskies, he had his chance.

"I had not had any fun this year," O'Neil said. "I played well the first game, then I had two bad games against Hawaii and Utah, then I got the infection and played with it at Washington State. It just hadn't been a great year for me personally."

From the 2-yard line, O'Neil started out the drive by hitting split end Dameron Ricketts for 36 yards to give the Ducks some breathing room. Consecutive completions to flanker Pat Johnson for 10 yards and Ricketts again for 21 yards brought the ball to the Washington 29.

"The reason I came to Oregon was because the program was on the rise and we could get a chance to prove that the program was a good team," O'Neil said. "I've gone through a lot of criticism this year, but you need confidence in yourself to get through that kind of talk."

"He's quick," UA coach Dick Tomey said. "He's hard to track down because he runs so well.

"He's clearly the best athlete of all the Pac-10 quarterbacks except maybe Don Shanklin (Oregon State quarterback)."

O'Neil scrambled eight yards to convert a key third down deep in Washington territory. With a third down at the Husky 12, O'Neil handed the ball off to fullback Dwayne Jones, who capped the 98-yard drive with a touchdown to give the Ducks a 24-20 lead. O'Neil was four-for-four on the drive for 68 yards.

An interception return for a touchdown gave the Ducks their final 31-20 cushion, and it also firmly entrenched Oregon (5-3, 3-1) in the race for this season's Rose Bowl. However, O'Neil hasn't started to look down that field quite yet.

"You can't think about things like that," O'Neil said about a possible trip to Pasadena in the near future. "If you look at it too much differently, it will jump up and get you."

What has jumped up at most people is that O'Neil is a quarterback capable of leading a team to victory.

"That 98-yard drive does a lot for us, and the media gave me a lot more credit," O'Neil said. "It finally proved to people that the team could win a big game with me at quarterback."

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