EUGENE — It couldn't have started much worse for Oregon.
Both the season and Thursday evening at Autzen Stadium, where the seventh-ranked Ducks hosted No. 13 Oregon State in the 113th Civil War.
After sustaining an opening-season loss at Boise State, and the program's black eye thanks to the infamous postgame punch by running back LeGarrette Blount, Oregon regrouped to put itself in the win-and-in scenario against the rival Beavers.
"Right after the (Boise State) game it didn't seem like it was too possible," junior Casey Matthews said. "Once we started to get back to work and started winning games, we knew what kind of team we had. We've got tremendous character on this team. We knew it was possible."
With the right to the Rose Bowl on the line, the Ducks' offense opened the game much like they did against Boise State — ugly.
On the third play of the game, Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli's pass sailed to receiver Ed Dickson, whose fingertips could only slow the trajectory of the errant pass that Oregon State's James Dockery snagged out of the air and returned to the Ducks' 22-yard line.
The Beavers later scored a touchdown off that turnover, which became a trend in the game.
But somehow, like it did after the embarrassing season opener, Oregon overcame the obstacles it forced on itself. The Ducks controlled the fourth quarter, keeping possession for nearly 11 minutes and converting a pair of fourth-down plays to run out the clock, winning 37-33.
"We just hung in there together," Masoli said. "We were fighting and scratching all game long."
All that scratching — on Thursday and all season — earned the Ducks their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1994-95 season.
"This is unbelievable," said freshman LaMichael James, who rushed for a game-high 166 yards and three touchdowns.
"I don't think it's sunk in yet. It's like I'm dreaming right now. I'm sure tomorrow I'll read the paper and say, 'Wow, we're going to the Rose Bowl.'"
Senior safety T.J. Ward described his feeling as "incomplete joy."
"We've still got to get this Rose Bowl win," he said.
COUGHING IT UP: The Ducks weren't done giving away opportunities after Masoli's early interception.
Oregon fumbled the ball three times in the second quarter, losing one. That led to a 29-yard field goal by Justin Kahut.
"We made some crucial mistakes in the first half, crucial mistakes," senior tight end Ed Dickson said.
Oregon didn't put the ball on the turf the rest of the contest.
Entering the game, the Ducks ranked second in the Pac-10 in turnover margin at plus-5. They had lost 14 fumbles and thrown five interceptions in the previous 11 games this season.
In contrast, Oregon State, which didn't turn the ball over in the game, ranks second in the nation with only eight turnovers this season. Although the Beavers have two fumbles this year, star running back Jacquizz Rodgers has never fumbled in his career at Oregon State.
BLOUNT RETURNS: After a much-maligned suspension, a questioned return and two weeks of waiting on the sidelines, Blount returned to the field for the first time since the Boise State game.
On a first-and-10 at the 39, the senior entered the backfield to the roar of the stadium-record 59,597 in attendance. He then carried for back-to-back 2-yard rushes and later capped the drive with a 12-yard touchdown run — his first of the season.
"I'm just glad he got to go out with a touchdown," James said.
Blount finished with nine rushes for 51 yards, including a 30-yarder on the Ducks' game-sealing possession.
"A tremendous boost," Dickson said. "They gave him a little chance today and he proved he's still got it.
"LeGarrette is like a brother to me, so I was hurting a little bit when he wasn't playing. He's a great player and he helped us out a lot today."
OF NOTE: Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl's 73-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter gave the junior a touchdown reception in each of the past three Civil War games. "¦ Kenjon Barner broke the Oregon single-season kickoff return record with 898 yards. "¦ James has now eclipsed 100 rushing yards in seven consecutive games. "¦ The Ducks are 4-1 against Top 25 teams this season. "¦ Entering the fourth quarter, the temperature was announced at 28 degrees and only 25 degrees accounting for the wind chill.
Reach reporter Shawn Miller at 776-4469, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org