Chris Tardif produced three superb saves - but couldn't prevent a sad-looking Oxford United sliding to another Conference defeat as their unbeaten home record bit the dust last night.

Sky TV watchers across the country must have wondered how this Oxford team had led the table in the first half of the season as Rushden thoroughly deserved to complete adouble over them.

And yet, thanks to Tardif's heroics, Jim Smith's team were still in the hunt as the game entered stoppage time.

After a shot from substitute Yemi Odubade had been palmed aside by goalkeeper Scott Tynan, top scorer Rob Duffy had what seemed a simple equalising chance from three yards as defender Jon Ashton unaccountably left the ball to him - yet Duffy shot wide.

The miss summed up United's performance - woeful.

There was so much wrong with Oxford's display, it is hard to know where to start.

The only bright spot was Tardif's shot-stopping, His first save came on 25 minutes when two ex-Oxford players combined as Wayne Hatswell flung himself forward to meet Jamie Cook's curling free-kick from the right with a glancing header.

Tardif was going to his left, but managed to change direction and threw out his right arm to turn the effort past a post.

Then, seven minutes before the break, Rushden striker Simeon Jackson got in behind the U's defence for a shot on the turn which Tardif saved superbly again, this time with a leg.

A follow-up shot was then blocked by Rufus Brevett and when it was played back in, Mark Albrighton volleyed over an open goal from five yards for a dreadful miss.

It was a very young and inexper- ienced United side as Smith brought Andrew Gunn into the defence, and had teenagers Gregg Coombes and Danny Rose in a three-man midfield.

Gunn made a nervy start to his home debut with a poor defensive header inside 20 seconds which presented Jackson with a chance in a decent position.

But the Rushden striker volleyed high over the bar from six yards.

Diamonds soon began to dominate, with Coombes, in particular, struggling to get into the game.

It needed a vital saving header from Barry Quinn to prevent the visitors opening the scoring when Tardif came a long way out of his goal and Jackson tried to chip him from the left side of the box.

From the resulting corner, Tardif couldn't get distance with his punch, Albrighton drove back in and Gunn cleared off the line.

United were finding it difficult stringing enough passes together to create moves It surely had to get better in the second half.

Well, it did to start with. Attacking the Oxford Mail Stand end, there seemed a renewed vigour about the team as they put together their first threatening move, begun by Duffy, who spread play to his right.

Eddie Anaclet's cross was too deep and was headed out, but the ball found its way to him again, and this time, spotting Tynan off his line, the United full back tried to chip him.

The keeper just managed to get back to fingertip the ball over from underneath his crossbar.

But nine minutes into the second half, United fell behind - at a set-piece.

They should have heeded a warning from moments earlier when Chris Beardsley got in front of his marker, but headed wide.

However, after Brevett had given away a free-kick, which earned him a booking, Cook delivered the ball from the right and Beardsley, poorly marked again, headed in.

The U's did at least manage some form of a response.

Duffy headed down a cross, Kris Grebis teed up Coombes, and the Cardiff youngster's 18-yard drive was pushed around a post by Tynan.

Moments later, a fierce Coombes drive, which was going wide, was headed goalwards by Rose, but straight at the keeper.

Smith sent on first Odubade and then Marvin Robinson to try to save the match, but neither had much impact.

Indeed, it needed some more brave goalkeeping from Tardif to deny Rushden again.

Coombes gave the ball away and when it was crossed, Beardsley should have scored, yet Tardif smothered the shot and then dived on the follow-up.

Oxford: Tardiff, Anaclet, Gunn, Quinn, Gilchrist, Brevett (Johnson 76), Coombes (Robinson 77), Rose, Burgess, Grebis (Odubade), Duffy. Subs not used: Tucker, Beechers.

Rushden: Tynan, Ashton, Albrighton, Hatswell, Watson, Cook, Wilson (Savage 70), Mills, Perpetuini (Kelly 70), Jackson (Tomlin 77), Beardsley. Subs not used: Margarson, Bostwick.

Referee: A Hendley (West Midlands).