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UO gets a top foe at Sun Bowl

Ducks primed for 'as great a challenge as we've had' against Minnesota

Yee-haw! Bring on them Gophers.

No stranger to superlatives, Oregon coach Mike Bellotti says playing an explosive Minnesota team in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31 in El Paso, Texas, will be 'as great a challenge as we've had.'

The Golden Gophers (9-3) rank third nationally in rushing, 293.2 yards per game, and seventh in scoring, 39.3 points per game. And Minnesota senior quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq averages 185.8 yards passing, completes 63.8 percent of his passes and has an efficiency rating of 165.65 points, for third in the country.

The Gophers ranked second in the country in total offense at 501.4 yards per game (behind Texas Tech's 584).

It won't be like playing Colorado in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl, where UO defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti schemed perfectly to stop the run Ñ the Ducks allowed 49 yards rushing Ñ and basically ignored the Buffaloes' feeble passing game. Minnesota, it seems, is prepared to beat the Ducks with Abdul-Khaliq, a 6-1, 205-pound senior from Elizabeth, N.J.

'Looks like a superstar to me,' Bellotti says.

Bellotti ran into some Michigan coaches on the recruiting trail Ñ the same ones he and his assistants outcoached in the Ducks' monumental 31-27 win Ñ and they said Minnesota 'can run the ball on anybody; -doesn't matter if you stack the box' with nine defenders.

Adds Bellotti: 'They're throwing the ball so efficiently. You can't load up on one particular aspect. That balance confounds you.'

The Ducks (8-4) and Gophers, in a rematch of the 1999 Sun Bowl won by UO 24-20, will play at 11 a.m. PST Dec. 31, live on CBS. Minnesota enters the game somewhat disappointed after its administration and fans lobbied to play in the Alamo Bowl, which chose fellow Big 10 Conference team Michigan State to play Nebraska.

For Oregon, just rising to third place in the Pacific 10 Conference has been hailed as a success after its slide of four losses in five games in midseason. The Sun Bowl, the second-oldest bowl behind the Rose, does an excellent job of making teams feel comfortable and welcome, Bellotti says.

For players other than five seniors around in 1999, it'll be a new experience. They might enjoy their day trip to Ciudad Juarez, right across the river in Mexico. The Ducks gather in El Paso on Dec. 26 for practice and festivities.

Coach Glen Mason has led Minnesota to four bowl games in five years, and like Oregon, the Gophers survived tough midseason losses Ñ to Michigan 38-35, after leading 28-7; to Michigan State 44-38, after trailing by 21 points; and Iowa 40-22 in the season finale to finish 5-3 in the Big 10. Oregon coaches and players will have plenty of Minnesota highlights to peruse before the big game, as the Gophers usually light up the scoreboard.

As an accurate passer and scrambler, Abdul-Khaliq 'is a danger for any defense,' Bellotti says. At tailback, sophomore Marion Barber III has rushed for 1,159 yards and 17 TDs, with freshman Laurence Maroney not far behind with 990 yards and nine scores. Fullback Thomas Tapeh has 530 yards and nine TDs.

Aaron Hosack and Jared Ellerson have combined for 99 catches, 1,616 yards and 13 TDs.

While the Gophers rank third in the country in rushing, the Ducks rank 12th in rushing defense (95.9 yards per game). Linebacker Kevin Mitchell, tackle Junior Siavii and safety Keith Lewis know how to stop the run; as always, the Ducks simply fear getting beat with the passing game.

'We know how good Michigan is,' Minnesota defensive coordinator Greg Hudson says, 'and we saw on film how Oregon handled them.'

In his initial research, Bellotti has also read about how Minnesota ranks in the top 40 in rushing and passing defense and scoring defense.

'This will be one of the best teams we've played in a bowl game,' Bellotti says.

The question is: If the Ducks beat Minnesota, ranked 20th in the -ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll and 24th in the Associated Press media poll, would they even be ranked in the top 25?