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Fast start suggests bowl game

Two wins from a bowl bid? Probably.

Hey, Oregon's played only four football games this season. But the high-flying Ducks have won all four of them for the first time since 1988.

Quick starts are nothing new to Oregon coach Mike Bellotti. All four of his teams, since he replaced Rich Brooks as Oregon's head coach in 1995, have started their seasons with 3-0 records.

But behind electrifying quarterback Akili Smith, the Ducks have gone one step further in 1998, and given Bellotti his first win over Stanford in the process.

Behind Smith's four touchdown passes in the first half, the Ducks snapped a three-game losing streak to Stanford with a 63-28 blitz of the Cardinal before another overflow crowd of 43,948 fans, many of whom wore yellow or green and turned real giddy about the time the sun popped out midway through the first quarter.

That's when Smith, who admits he has lofty goals such as being a Heisman Trophy contender and playing in the Rose Bowl, started to heat up his right arm.

The senior unleashed four touchdown passes and threw for 313 yards in the first half. He was on his way to setting all kinds of records until Oregon blew the game open in the third quarter and then turned conservative to allow the clock to run.

I'm hot right now, said Smith. I've got a lot of confidence going. It all goes back to throwing to our receivers all summer and talking to them about how they like their passes thrown. I know them.

Smith, who was supposed to split time with senior Jason Maas this season, has taken over the position with his superlative play. He has thrown bullet passes when needed, touch passes when needed, and he's playing with a definite air of confidence.

Result: Oregon scores 63 points and Smith completes 18 of 29 passes for 357 yards and four touchdowns. And the Ducks go 4-and-0 for the first time since 1988.

Akili is playing at a level perhaps unmatched by other quarterbacks here, said Bellotti, stunning a throng of media representatives, who were remembering back to past Duck quarterbacks such as Tony Graziani, Danny O'Neill, Bill Musgrave, Chris Miller, Dan Fouts and others.

But as Bellotti stressed, the season isn't over. Smith still has seven regular-season games against some stiff competition, such as USC, UCLA, Washington and Arizona State, to deal with before such sentiment can be finalized.

But it's a nice start for Smith, who credits Oregon offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford.

He knows me real well, said Smith. And I'm getting to know him real well. I wish I could play here another year or two. I think he could make me an awesome quarterback.

Before the game, he said to me `No interceptions and no bad reads.' I didn't have many, although my interception was a bad read and a bad throw.

You're forgiven by Duck fans for one little miscue, Akili. After all, you made big play after big play, you've taken over as the offensive team's leader and you threw four touchdowns.

Sound like Heisman material? Not yet, but Akili hopes he might be getting closer.

I'd just like to be sitting there with guys like Tim Couch (of Kentucky) at the Heisman announcement, said Smith. I know that sounds like a pretty high goal, but I have high expectations. It would be a dream if I was there.

We're also thinking about going back to the Rose Bowl for this team, said Smith. Our goal is to win 'em all. As confident as I am right now, I think we can do it.

Oregon piled up 664 yards of total offense, just three yards shy of the school record.

Junior Reuben Droughns returned to the Ducks in a big way with 214 yards on 22 carries.

It seemed like Oregon had too many tailbacks early in the season. But now that four of them are injured (freshman sensation Herman Ho-Ching, Jerry Brown, Derrien Lattimer and Droughns), six talented tailbacks are barely enough.

Fortunately for Oregon, Droughns could play at what he termed 90 percent of his best. That 90 percent was good enough for touchdown romps of — yard, 67 yards and a 40-yard picture of beauty to end the scoring for Oreogn deep into the fourth quarter.

Now that Bellotti has ended his losing streak to Stanford, he has two weeks to make amends with Washington State. He has lost two of his last three games to the Cougars, but he gets a bye week this week. Oregon meets the Cougars Oct. 10 at Pullman, Wash.

The main thing is this team has developed a belief in itself, said Bellotti. It doesn't matter what back is carrying the ball. They seem to develop confidence in all of them.