Sunday, Dec. 21, 1997 | 8:45 a.m.
LAS VEGAS - 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.
By the time the fourth quarter began, both teams had their second and third teams in with the game long since decided.
Air Force had allowed only 12.4 points a game during the regular season, third in the nation behind Michigan and Ohio State. But Oregon had that much and more after only two minutes of play before a crowd of 21,514 in the sixth annual bowl.
Oregon had finished tied for seventh in the Pac-10 with barely enough wins to qualify for a postseason bowl. It was enough, though, to get an invitation to the Las Vegas Bowl, which went to an at-large format this year after five years of matching the Mid-American and Big West conference champions.
McCullough, who was pulled late in the third quarter after running 17 times for 150 yards, finished the season with 1,343 yards, surpassing the school record of 1,211 yards held by Bobby Moore.