EUGENE, Ore. Dennis Dixon has helped carry Oregon into the heart of the national title race.
For a few moments, the Ducks had to wonder if he'd be there for the rest of the journey.
Dixon threw four touchdown passes before leaving with a knee injury, and the fourth-ranked Ducks defeated No. 6 Arizona State 35-23 on Saturday, their second consecutive victory over a Top 10 team.
Though Dixon's injury is not believed to be serious, it may have given Oregon more of a scare than the Sun Devils did.
"Dennis is going to be fine," coach Mike Bellotti said. "He would have gone back in if we felt he was needed."
The Ducks didn't need their Heisman Trophy candidate in the final quarter, and that was a testament to tailback Jonathan Stewart, who ran for 99 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown, and their oft-criticized defense. The Ducks sacked ASU quarterback Rudy Carpenter nine times and forced two late turnovers deep in Oregon territory.
"We played inspired on both sides of the ball," Dixon said. "And we can enjoy it right now."
Last week, the Ducks beat Southern California in Autzen to set up the West Coast's biggest game of the season Oregon was in fifth-place in the latest BCS standings while Arizona State was fourth.
The largest crowd to attend a football game in the state, 59,379, came out on a clear, crisp afternoon to watch the Ducks (8-1, 5-1 Pac-10) repel the Sun Devils (8-1, 5-1). When it ended, students poured out of the grandstand and mobbed the Ducks at midfield.
There were more celebrations in Eugene later in the evening, when No. 2 Boston College lost to Florida State, which should boost the Ducks to third, and perhaps even second, when the new Bowl Championship Series standings are released today.
The Ducks might be ranked even higher had they not lost in the final minute against then-No. 6 California in Autzen Stadium on Sept. 29. But that defeat galvanized Oregon, which has won four straight to take command of the Pac-10 race.
"The thing that's impressive is our team has gotten better and better every game," said defensive end Nick Reed, who had 3 1/2 sacks.
Arizona State came into the game as one of five undefeated teams in major college football, with its own hopes for a national title run.
The Sun Devils remain very much in the Rose Bowl picture despite the loss. But they ceded control of their destiny and will need the Ducks to stumble in their final three games.
"Obviously guys are down," quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. "We wanted to have a magical season this year, and I think guys have got to understand that we still can. We've only lost one to one of the best teams in the country, so we've just got to come back next week."
Carpenter showed no apparent effects of a sprained right thumb, which was bandaged. Carpenter completed his first seven passes and finished 22-of-36 for 379 yards and two touchdowns, and he was intercepted once.
The game pitted the Pac-10's top offense against its toughest defense. The Ducks averaged 43.8 points per game coming in, third in the nation, while the Sun Devils allowed 16.1 points.
The first possessions set the tone for the game. On the game's first snap, Dixon hit Jaison Williams for a 43-yard strike to the Arizona State 33. Three plays later, Williams caught a screen in the right flat and raced 26 yards for a touchdown.
"I have to give Oregon credit," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said. "They came out like wildfires on offense."
ASU answered with a methodical 11-play, 71-yard march. But with first-and-goal at the Oregon 3, the Ducks stuffed Dimitri Nance on three consecutive runs, and the Sun Devils settled for a field goal to cut their deficit to 7-3.
"I don't think we ran the ball like we needed to inside the 10," Erickson said. "We've been good in the red zone all year, just not today.'
The Ducks led 14-3 after one quarter. It was the fourth time this season Arizona State had faced a double-digit deficit after the first quarter.
In the first three against Colorado, Oregon State and California the Sun Devils rallied for decisive victories. But all three of those games were in Sun Devil Stadium.
This time, ASU couldn't dig itself out of the hole.
"Jumping on a team lets them know that we're here to play," Stewart said.
Dixon was the main reason for Oregon's fast start. Freezing the defense with deft fakes, Dixon bolstered his Heisman candidacy by leading the Ducks to a comfortable 35-16 lead through three quarters.
With a fat lead, the Ducks didn't need Dixon in the final quarter. Dixon was up and hopping on the sideline late in the game, and he said afterward he could have returned if necessary. Dixon completed 13-of-22 passes for 189 yards and four touchdowns, and he also ran for 57 yards.
Dixon has time to rest. Oregon is off until Nov. 15, when it visits Arizona in a Thursday night game.
After Dixon got hurt on an 11-yard run early in the fourth quarter, Oregon sent in Brady Leaf and asked its defense to hold off the Sun Devils, who outgained the Ducks 489 yards to 400.
The defense did just that, creating two turnovers to seal the victory.
"As a defense, we have to make those big plays when it comes down to the wire, and so far we've been making those big plays," cornerback Walter Thurmond said.