After Oregon's victory over Arizona State, Dennis Dixon stood in a tunnel beneath Autzen Stadium. A group of students passed by, chanting "Heisman! Heisman!" at the unlikely candidate.
"It's great," he said. "It's an individual award, but then again I can't credit myself. I take 10 other guys with me. They make it happen."
Oregon's senior quarterback, whose ability and dedication were called into question last season, is certainly having a Heisman-worthy year. He's the heart of a team that has surpassed expectations, and suddenly finds itself in the middle of the national championship picture.
Not surpsingly, his name is among a half-dozen in a muddled race for college football's top individual prize. Other favorites include Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan.
"He is doing all the things necessary of a Heisman candidate," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. "He's winning football games. He's leading his team."
Drawing comparisons to Vince Young for his ability to run and pass, Dixon has thrown for 2,074 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, with only three interceptions. He's also rushed for 549 yards and eight scores.
Dixon's quarterback rating of 163.1 is fourth in the nation, and he's averaging just over 291 yards per game in total offense.
But what doesn't show up in the box score is what sets him apart: the fake handoffs to tailback Jonathan Stewart, the elusive scampers downfield, and even the trick plays, like a feigned Statue of Liberty play against Michigan earlier this season.
"He's gotten to this point by playing great football in a very exciting, innovative offense that he makes go," Bellotti said. "He's performed on a national stage very well."
Who would have thought all this was possible a year ago?
Dixon started 11 games last season, throwing for 2,143 yards and 12 touchdowns &
with an unsightly 14 interceptions. While he rushed for 442 yards and two TDs, he showed nowhere near the imaginative running ability on display this season.
He was benched the final two games in favor of backup Brady Leaf. Dixon then raised eyebrows in the offseason by playing baseball in the Atlanta Braves organization.
But Dixon seemed to return this season with renewed enthusiasm. He also hit it off with new offensive coordinator Chip Kelly, who took over when Gary Crowton departed for LSU.
Kelly favors an up-tempo spread-option, perfectly suited to Dixon's abilities.
"Chip Kelly has done a great job of helping him understand a few things more about this offense and the corresponding response of the defense," Bellotti said. "He's been a better student of the game. He has challenged himself. He knows and understands what we're doing."
Dixon tossed four touchdowns in the 35-23 win over the Sun Devils on Nov. 3. He earned Pac-10 Conference player of the week honors for the third time this season, but gave fans a scare when he fell to the turf with a knee injury late in the game. He did not return to the game, but an MRI exam revealed only a sprain.
Now, Dixon has a weekend off before the Ducks (8-1) travel to Arizona for a Thursday night game. After that is UCLA at the Rose Bowl and Oregon State back at Autzen Stadium. And then, perhaps, New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
"He has so much poise," Stewart said. "If you look at him on the sideline, whether he threw a pick or something bad happened, or if he scored, you still see the same kind of focus throughout the whole game &
until the end of the game when we see that smile."
Asked whether Dixon is the most worthy Heisman candidate, Stewart laughed.
"What else does he have to do?" he said.
Murmurs of Dixon's Heisman turn to shouts