By Craig Sanders
Arizona Daily Wildcat
This time last year, Oregon quarterback Danny O'Neil was leading his Ducks to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 37 years. A talented quarterback, O'Neil was on his way to setting several Oregon passing records and leading the Ducks to five straight wins and a trip to Pasadena, Calif.
For backup quarterback Tony Graziani, it was a time to watch and learn. He had seen limited action during the season, but he was as caught up in Oregon's dream season as everyone else. He sat on the sidelines as O'Neil threw for 456 yards in Oregon's 38-20 loss to Penn State.
"Last season was tremendous," said Graziani, a junior. "I enjoyed being a part of the team."
Graziani could afford to be patient. He knew he would eventually inherit a quarterback position that was piloted in its last three incarnations by the record-setting O'Neil and NFL players Chris Miller and Bill Musgrave.
"There is really not that much difference for me in being a reserve and a starter," Graziani said. "I get a lot more practice time and I put a lot more into my preparation into each game, but I came ready to play whether I was a starter or a reserve."
Graziani may have downplayed his transition to starter, but at the beginning of the season he was Oregon's biggest question mark. He was not totally raw, playing spot duty early last season and completing 16-31 passes for 287 yards in Oregon's 22-7 victory over Southern Cal in Los Angeles last October. But whether he was ready to take over the reigns of the Pacific 10 Conference's champion was still in question.
"I think we have an answer at quarterback in terms of Tony Graziani," Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti said before the beginning of the season. "Tony has proven he can win at this level. That's an important thing for him to know, for our coaching staff to know and for our team to know."
Graziani took to the role of starting quarterback like a duck to water. In the first game of the season against Utah, he threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns on 28-of-49 passing. He missed the next game against Illinois with a bruised shoulder, but returned and consistently threw for big yards and touchdowns. In fact, last week's 24-22 win against Washington was the first time he played a full game without throwing a touchdown.
"I just do whatever it takes for this team to win," Graziani said. "We have a great offensive line and very talented people at the skill positions."
Two of the major players at those skill positions are wide receiver Cristin McLemore and running back Ricky Whittle. McLemore might be Oregon's best receiver in school history and has continued to excel under Graziani with 52 receptions for 905 yards this season. The run has also been a valuable tool. Whittle is the second-leading rusher in the Pac-10 with 814 yards on 198 carries and 37 receptions out of the backfield.
With so much talent to work with, many could say it was easy for O'Neil's heir to guide Oregon to a 7-2 record. But the Duck coaches and players have said they don't believe Graziani is just a blank cog placed in the Duck offensive machine.
"I think he's doing great," Bellotti said. "He's come into his own this year. He's throwing the ball extremely well. He has been a very smart and heady quarterback in scrambling when he needs to. He's done a nice job of leading this team and I think he is the recognized leader of this team."
Graziani's running ability has caused opponents problems all year. He has been sacked only 14 times this season, and his toughness and ability to move in the pocket are what many spectators admire the most.
"Their quarterback Graziani is very mobile Ÿ he can run the option, he can do all of those things," Arizona head coach Dick Tomey said. "He does a lot of things well and he's hard to get to."
Arizona will be sending Tedy Bruschi, the team's leading sacker with 12, against the mobile quarterback this weekend. Graziani is looking forward to the challenge.
"This is definitely the biggest game of the year," Graziani said. "And this is definitely the best defense we've played all year. I'm excited about coming out and performing."
If he can continue the type of performance he has had all season, Oregon will be hard to beat. He has thrown for 2,270 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. He is the leader in total offense in the Pac-10 and ranks seventh in the nation, which isn't bad considering he was only an average recruit from central California. UCLA, the Washington schools and the Oregon schools all recruited Graziani, but it was his desire to leave California that landed him in Oregon.
"I didn't want to play for a California school," Graziani said. "I really liked the coaching staff and organization here at Oregon. It was the right place for me to develop."
With the season drawing to a close, the Ducks will almost undoubtedly go to a bowl game. Graziani most likely won't match his predecessor's feat of reaching the Rose Bowl, but for this season at least, Oregon's fate lies in the fourth-year junior's hands.
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