.EL PASO, Texas – It didn’t take long for Minnesota defensive coordinator Greg Hudson to realize what his defense was up against in the 2003 Sun Bowl on Wednesday afternoon.
Midway through the game’s opening period, Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens showed off his football prowess by firing a strike to wide receiver Samie Parker along the opposite sideline for a completion and a first down.
While Hudson had been watching film of Clemens in preparation for the New Year’s Eve match-up for close to a month, he admitted after the Gophers’ 31-30 victory to being impressed by how good Oregon’s sophomore quarterback looked in person.
So impressed, in fact, he couldn’t help but compliment Clemens after the aforementioned play.
“He made that throw on the sideline and I looked at him and he looked at me and I said, ‘Hey, that was pretty impressive,'” Hudson said.
“The kids out here better get his autograph. He’s going to be a star.”
Clemens replied with a simple, “Thanks coach” before heading back to the huddle and resuming his dissection of Hudson’s pass defense.
Oregon’s sophomore quarterback showed the poise of a veteran against the Gophers, displaying patience in the pocket and quality decision-making on his way to a personal-best 363 yards passing.
Clemens also threw for three touchdowns and set a Sun Bowl record by completing 77 percent of his passes. His 42 pass attempts and 32 completions were both career highs.
Through the first two quarters, only four of Clemens’ 22 passes fell incomplete, with two coming on balls deflected at the line of scrimmage and a third on a dropped ball.
“He’s obviously a playmaker,” Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said. “He’s a great quarterback already and going to be even greater in the future.”
Bellotti should know. He oversaw Joey Harrington’s maturation into one of the best quarterback’s in the nation a few years ago at Oregon before Harrington was drafted third overall by the Detroit Lions in 2002.
Clemens’ performance against Minnesota was even more impressive considering it was only his third game as the undisputed leader of the Ducks’ offense.
Until the final two games of the season, Clemens had split quarterbacking duties with senior Jason Fife before emerging as the team’s number one signal-caller.
His installment behind center coincided with the turnaround of an Oregon season filled with questions following three straight midseason defeats.
The Ducks won their final three games of the season, however, before narrowly falling to the Gophers in a rematch of the 1999 Sun Bowl.
“I think the quarterback gets too much credit in that instance,” Clemens said. “But the team really rallied after that.”
Bellotti immediately noticed the chance in team attitude since Clemens’ promotion.
“I’m very pleased with the way he’s taken over – from a maturity standpoint and a leadership standpoint with this team,” Bellotti said. “He’s the kind of young man that can make all the difference to a team.”
And it didn’t hurt having Parker as a downfield target.
Parker displayed Velcro hands en route to setting school records for single-game, single-season and career receptions in his final collegiate game. He finished with an eye-popping 16 catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns.
And it certainly was in Clemens’ favor that Minnesota was forced to shuffle its secondary due to cornerback Trumaine Banks being sent home earlier this week for violating team rules.
After safety Eli Ward injured his hand on the opening kickoff, cornerback Ukee Dozier was the only member of the Gophers’ secondary who started the game in his usual position.
Still, despite being shredded for much of the game by Clemens and Parker, Minnesota’s defense came up big when it had to.
Halftime adjustments allowed the Gophers to apply decent pressure on the quarterback after the pass rush was virtually non-existent in the first half.
Minnesota twice forced the Ducks to settle for field goals in the fourth quarter with third-down sacks before Justin Isom intercepted Clemens for the game’s only turnover to seal the win in the final seconds.
“We just stuck with the same scheme, stayed confident and pulled one out,” Isom said.