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DUCKS PADDLE AIR FORCE WITH BIG PLAYS EARLY

All week long, Oregon coach Mike Bellotti kept insisting his team belonged in a postseason game. Two plays into the Las Vegas Bowl, Air Force found out why.

The Ducks, who barely had enough wins to qualify for a bowl, opened the major college bowl season with a bang Saturday, scoring on their first two plays from scrimmage to spark a 41-13 win over No. 23 Air Force.

Pat Johnson stunned the Falcons with a 69-yard touchdown reception on the first play of the game, then Saladin McCullough went 76 yards up the middle the next time Oregon got the ball.

In just 2:06, Oregon had already scored more points than Air Force's opponents averaged all year, and the rout was on.

"It was a convincing win over a good team. That should boost our stock," Bellotti said after his team finished the season at 7-5.

Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry was one of those convinced.

"They're the best offensive team we've played this season. They're much better than a 6-5 team," DeBerry said.

Johnson, the 1995 Pac-10 400-meter champion, scored on passes of 69 and 78 yards and Tony Hartley caught two other touchdown passes for Oregon.

The bowl season was only 18 seconds old when Johnson streaked down the left sideline to catch a pass in midstride from Akili Smith and go 69 yards for a touchdown.

"I know we can get deep on anybody," Johnson said.

After an Air Force punt, McCullough took a handoff up the middle on Oregon's next play from scrimmage and ran 76 yards for another score to put the Ducks up, 13-0, with only 2:06 run off the game clock.

"I thought the first play of the game really set the tempo for them, and the second play really set them on fire," DeBerry said.

Oregon led, 26-0, at halftime, bottling up Air Force's option offense and not allowing the Falcons (10-3) to complete a pass until midway through the second quarter.

It was the first win in the last five bowl games for the Ducks, hadn't won a bowl game since beating Tulsa in the 1989 Independence Bowl.

Oregon took a total of only 69 seconds for its three offensive scores in the first half, the last coming on a five-play, 71-yard drive that put the Ducks up 26-0 on a 7-yard pass to Hartley in the end zone with 28 seconds left in the half.

The second half wasn't much different, with Oregon needing only 37 seconds for its first score and 42 seconds for another. Oregon's longest offensive scoring drive came in the third quarter when the Ducks needed 48 seconds to go 71 yards and find the end zone on a 7-yard pass to Hartley.

A game that had been billed as Oregon's potent offense against Air Force's stingy defense developed instead into a lopsided contest that forced Air Force out of running its option offense in a futile effort to get back into the game.

"The extra week we had to prepare for the option made a big difference," Bellotti said.

The lone bright spot for the Falcons' offense came in the third quarter when Jemal Singleton ran 51 yards to set up a quarterback sneak by Blane Morgan that drew Air Force to within 26-7. Air Force's other score came on a 45-yard fumble recovery return for a touchdown by tackle Bryce Fisher.

Penguins capture Division I-AA title

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- The Youngstown State offense couldn't move on McNeese State's defense most of the day. That's when the Penguins decided to try something brand new.

Demond Tidwell's 9-yard touchdown pass to Renauld Ray with eight minutes left -- on a play Youngstown's coaches made up seconds before on the sidelines -- lifted the Penguins to a 10-9 victory over McNeese State (13-2) and their fourth Division I-AA championship this decade.

"Coach (Jim) Tressel probably drew that play up in the dirt," said Tidwell. "Truly, we had never run that play all year long. You just have to improvise sometimes, and that's what we did."

On third-and-goal at the 9, the Penguins sent receiver Mark Cox into motion and had Tidwell call for the snap just as Cox passed behind Ray.

"We thought there would be a possibility of a miscommunication because they were playing man (-to-man coverage in the defensive secondary)," Tressel said. "We snapped the ball, they miscommunicated, and that's the difference in the championship game. One mistake."

Both defenders went with Cox, while Ray loped all alone to the back left corner of the end zone, where Tidwell lofted him the winning pass.

"The ball seemed like it was in the air forever," Ray said. "It didn't seem like it was ever coming down."

Youngstown State (13-2), which also won titles in 1991, '93 and '94, won by capitalizing on the game's only turnover, an interception by Penguins linebacker Jeff Fackrell in the fourth quarter that set up the winning 66-yard drive.

"We turned it over and the momentum swung. You could feel it. Our kids felt it," said McNeese coach Bobby Keasler.

After the interception, Tidwell, who completed 11-of-20 passes for 110 yards, drove the Penguins 66 yards in nine plays, accounting for a third of Youngstown's total 200 offensive yards.

It was lowest-scoring championship game in I-AA history, surpassing Youngstown's 17-5 victory over Marshall in 1993.

Findlay prevails again in NAIA championship

SAVANNAH, Tenn. -- Bo Hurley threw for one touchdown and ran 60 yards for another as Findlay of Ohio beat Willamette, 14-7, for the Oilers' fifth NAIA championship in five trips.

Jim Smiddie carried 15 times for 126 yards for Findlay (14-0). Tim Blai had a 72-yard touchdown run for Williamette (13-1).

Plenty of trouble for Penn State

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Joe Jurevicius, Penn State's top receiver, will not play in the Citrus Bowl because of academic problems, school officials said Saturday. Jurevicius did not accompany the 11th-ranked Nittany Lions on their trip to Florida because he did not perform well enough academically during the fall semester, coach Joe Paterno said after getting off the plane.

Jurevicius, a second-team All-Big Ten receiver, was not declared academically ineligible, Paterno said. Penn State plays No. 6 Florida in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1.

The senior receiver leads the team with 39 catches for 817 yards. Jurevicius has 10 of Penn State's 17 touchdown receptions.

Also, the school said it will investigate a report that a sports agent improperly purchased a suit for All-American running back Curtis Enis.

Harrisburg station WHTM-TV reported Friday night that Houston-based agent Jeff Nalley bought a $400 suit at a Harrisburg-area clothing store Dec. 6 for Enis to wear to an ESPN college football awards show.

The station quoted unidentified sources and showed a credit card receipt.

If there was a violation, Enis could be ineligible for the Citrus Bowl and the 1998 season.

Enis, a junior, has 3,256 career rushing yards, the third-highest total in school history, including 1,363 this season.

Around the nation: Manning leaves the hospital

Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning is out of a Knoxville hospital and will probably be back at practice next Saturday in Miami. Manning was hospitalized since Monday with an infection in his right knee. The Vols face No. 2 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl Jan. 2.

Rocky Long has come home to the place his heart never left. Long, a star quarterback at New Mexico 25 years ago and more recently UCLA's defensive coordinator, was hired by the Lobos to succeed Dennis Franchione, who resigned last week to take the head coaching job at TCU. The Lobos (9-3) will play Arizona (6-5) at the Insight.com Bowl next Saturday in Tucson.

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