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Little known Frankel now toast of the town

Commentary

As midnight approached over chilly, fog-shrouded Autzen Stadium, the home of Oregon football became an eerie place.

No home game in Oregon history ended this late. It was 11:41 p.m. Saturday -- and counting -- when third-string Oregon placekicker Josh Frankel rooted through a 27-yard field goal in the third overtime to give the Ducks a 33-30 win over the University of Southern California.

Whew! It was so late, newspaper deadlines had come and gone as the game raged on into third overtime.

Few people in the standing-room-only crowd of 45,660 left early in the 4 1/2-hour game early. The drama of the action left Ducks and Trojans fans squirming in their seats and riveted on the action.

It was not only the longest game in Autzen Stadium history, but maybe the best and most exciting one.

Hey, there's a full moon up there, said one Oregon assistant coach to another as they walked out of the stadium arm smiling and hugging. It was that crazy.

Frankel, a senior who had been waiting for four years to just get a chance to kick behind such star kickers as Matt Belden and Nathan Villegas, finally got his chance. He made his career with a conversion kick in the second overtime and the game-winning field goal in the third extra session.

My mind went blank, said Frankel. I had made an extra point and I felt confident after that. I hit the field goal real solid.

Villegas, who kicked a 26-yard field goal with 30 seconds left in regulation time to send the game into overtime at 23-23, suffered a knee injury to his kicking leg during the ensuing celebration.

It was freaky. And a blow for the Ducks.

It means Oregon will probably travel to Seattle to play Washington Saturday without Villegas available.

The way he kicked in the overtimes, Frankel will probably assume his duties. Dan Katz, Oregon's No. 2 placekicker and kickoff specialist, missed a potential game-winning field goal from 33 yards out at the end of the first overtime and was replaced by Frankel.

I felt bad for Dan, said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti. He comes in cold in a game like that. It was getting cold out there and he kick barefooted.

The physical game was a painful one for the Ducks despite the win.

Oregon also lost start running back Reuben Droughns indefinitely with torn cartilage in his rib-cage area and Herman Ho-Ching, the backup-tailback to Droughns, had to leave the game with a foot injury in the fourth quarter.

That forced senior Derien Latimer into the game. He ran for 33 tough yards on eight carries, including two runs for 14 yards in the third overtime, to set up the winning field goal.

I was glad for Derien that he got a chance, said Oregon quarterback A.J. Feeley. He's a tough runner and I thought they put him in because he doesn't fumble.

Feeley, the calm and collected junior quarterback, played well from start to finish. He completed 23 of 39 passes for 275 yards and three touchdowns and he engineered Oregon's game-tying drive in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter to send the game

into overtime. He did all that in the face of USC's relentless pressure.

A.J. told me we weren't going to lose this game before that drive, said Bellotti. We have a bunch of kids who refused to lose. I'm proud of all of them.

Senior receiver Tony Hartley made three catches for 30 yards as Oregon drove from its own 20 to the USC 4 before settling for the tying field goal that sent the game into overtime.

Feeley was near-flawless in that drive and threw the ball right on target on every pass despite tight coverage by the Trojans, who were looking for an interception to wrap up the win.

USC Coach Paul Hackett blew this game. With just over two minutes left in regulation, USC owned a 23-20 lead with 2:20 to play and had the football. The Trojans had a fourth-and-one situation at the Oregon 13-yard line.

With his monster offensive line, which dwarfed Oregon's defensive front, Hackett should have run senior tailback Chad Morton on fourth-and-one behind that big front with SC's best rushing play.

It's hard to imagine that after a timeout, USC couldn't have picked up one yard on its best play. If it had, the Trojans could have run out the clock from there.

But Hackett opted for a 30-yard field goal attempt, and David Newbury missed badly.

That set up Feeley and the Ducks with a chance to make a memorable drive -- similar to the one the Ducks made to defeat Washington in 1995 to start their run to the Pac-10 title and Rose Bowl berth.

The win thrusts Oregon into position to win the Pac-10. Arizona, USC and UCLA -- the favorites to win the Pac-10 -- have already lost a conference game.

Oregon is 1-0 and 3-1 overall. The Ducks have won 11 straight games in Autzen Stadium.

I remember when I was a little kid (in Ontario) playing football in the backyard, said Feeley. We were always pretending we were playing against SC. It was them because they were the good team way up in the clouds above everybody else.

Feeley beat the Trojans a few times in his backyard . But not on the real playing field. Until Saturday.

It's like a movie, said Feeley. It's like my dream come true.

(Randy Hammericksen is the Mail Tribune's sports columnist. He can be reached at 776-4499.)