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Ducks, Devils vie for Pac-10 lead today

EUGENE — When Oregon coach Mike Bellotti heard the Ducks were picked to finish sixth in the Pac-10, he wasn't surprised. He was amused.

He had a feeling his team would surpass expectations and the Ducks have done that in a big way.

No. 4 Oregon (7-1, 4-1 Pac-10) plays equally surprising No. 6 Arizona State (8-0, 5-0) today in a game that has conference title and national championship implications.

"I think I remember we were picked to finish sixth in the conference, and I sort of smiled inwardly at that," Bellotti said. "I thought we were a better football team than that, but I felt we played so poorly at the end of last season that that was fine. I used that stuff to challenge our players, and I'm sure coach (Dennis) Erickson did at Arizona State."

After a strong start, the Ducks did finish miserably last season, losing their final four games, including a 38-8 thumping by BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl. The Ducks finished 7-6 overall and tied for fifth in the Pac-10.

One of the biggest reasons for the turnaround is senior quarterback Dennis Dixon, who has caught on to Oregon's speedy spread-option under first-year offensive coordinator Chip Kelly.

"He had a great first half of last season — people don't remember that. But he didn't finish that," Bellotti said. "He is right now in the process of finishing this season. He has great focus, great leadership."

Dixon, who is getting increased Heisman Trophy hype, has thrown for 1,885 yards and 16 touchdowns with only three interceptions. He's also second on the Ducks, behind tailback Jonathan Stewart, with 494 yards rushing and eight TDs on the ground.

Arizona State, in its first year under Erickson, was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-10.

But Arizona State has methodically plowed through its schedule and are one of five remaining undefeated teams in the country. The Sun Devils are 8-0 for the first time since the 1996 Rose Bowl team went 11-0 in the regular season.

"I'm just really having fun getting a chance to be a part of a good team and a winning and successful team. It's been awhile since we've had a season like this, so it just feels good. It's fun right now and hopefully we can keep winning," said quarterback Rudy Carpenter, who has thrown for 2,168 yards this season with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Erickson let his guard down after last weekend's 31-20 victory in Tempe over California. He pumped his fists, hugged everyone on the sideline, and even swiped Sparky the Sun Devil's pitchfork after ASU's biggest victory so far.

"I'm pretty even keel a lot of the time," Erickson said. "I got caught up in the time of that game. It was big for us because it was the first time we had a sellout, playing one of the better teams and better programs in the Pac-10, and we came back.

"It was a fun thing for me. I'm finally having fun."

Oregon is coming off a 24-17 victory over USC last weekend at Autzen Stadium.

The Sun Devils have won two straight in Eugene, although the Ducks have the last two victories in the overall series.

Last season in Tempe, Dixon passed for three touchdowns and Stewart ran for 142 yards as the Ducks piled up 574 yards in total offense for a 48-13 victory. Carpenter struggled in the game, completing six of 19 passes for 33 yards.