It's likely to be a game of wits, talent and surprises in El Paso
What tricks do the Oregon Ducks have in their Sun Bowl bag?
Every year, coach Mike Bellotti and his assistants seem to bring something unusual to their bowl game. Their first 15 scripted plays usually show off their fancy Pacific-10 Conference offense, and their adjustments typically lean toward zipping the ball downfield.
In other words, they make things exciting.
'You always go into every game with a bag of tricks,' says Bellotti, whose Ducks (8-4) will face Minnesota (9-3) on Wednesday in El Paso, Texas. 'Every league game, you take in two, three or four special plays Ñ reverses, flea flickers Ñ and whether you use them depends on how the game goes.
'I expect a close football game; the teams seem fairly equally matched. We won't know until the first series É about the matchups at the line and the speed differential.'
The Ducks want to run Ñthey had 218 yards on the ground against Oregon State but only 212 total in their previous three games.
'That concept never changes,' Bellotti says. 'Then we get a chance to throw play-action and throw when we want to throw.'
Minnesota relies on a high-octane offense that has netted 39.3 points and 501.4 yards per game. The defense stops the run, but not as well as Oregon's, which has an awesome defensive line. The Gophers like to blitz, often crisscrossing defenders in an attempt to confuse quarterbacks.
The Gophers have solid linebackers in Terrance Campbell and Ben West, a good strong safety in senior Justin Isom and a three-year starter in Ukee Dozier at one corner. At the other corner is freshman Trumaine Banks, the soft spot the Ducks have already identified.
'Their safeties will play six or seven yards off the line and fill very fast on the run,' UO quarterback Kellen Clemens says. 'I would anticipate throwing outside and getting outside a little more.'
The Ducks can fly with receivers Samie Parker or Demetrius Williams on the outside, but they started to surge offensively when tight end Tim Day got healthy and provided a weapon in the middle of the field. And Oregon ran well up the middle against OSU with the likes of Clemens and tailback Terrence Whitehead.
'We're looking for a very good challenge. At the same time, they haven't shown anything on tape we haven't seen yet,' Clemens says of Minnesota. 'We'll be well prepared for what they're going to throw at us.'
Civil War set up expectations
Oregon's offensive and defensive lines played their best combined games in the Civil War. And everybody dinged up should enter the Sun Bowl healthy. 'It'll be determined at the line of scrimmage, no question about that,' Bellotti says.
Which takes us to Minnesota's offense vs. Oregon's defense, which every college football follower Ñ even ESPN gurus Lee Corso and Trev Alberts Ñ could quickly conclude is a classic matchup. Oregon allows 95.9 yards rushing, 12th in the nation, and Minnesota romps for 293.2 yards, third in the nation.
The Gophers run from the one-back set, using sophomore tailback Marion Barber III (1,159 yards, 6.1 per carry), freshman tailback Laurence Maroney (990, 6.7) and senior fullback Thomas Tapeh (530, 5.0). QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq not only ranks as the nation's third-most efficient passer, but he also has rushed for 341 yards.
Minnesota loves misdirection, especially running the fly reverse, where Abdul-Khaliq fakes the dive handoff or fakes to the receiver.
The Gophers zone block and pull All-American Greg Eslinger, a 6-3, 280-pound center, quite often. 'Very athletic offensive line,' Bellotti observes.
Oregon linebacker Kevin Mitchell knows he will be challenged to follow the ball. So will free safety Keith Lewis, who probably will play the run much more than in Pac-10 games, when he often roamed the field helping the cornerbacks.
'Scheme's going to change a lot,' Lewis says. 'It's going to be a fun game.'
Abdul-Khaliq completes 63.8 percent of his passes. The 6-1, 215 senior will scramble and throw, but the Gophers drop him straight back, too, often with play-action. Duck defensive end Devan Long, who has 10.5 sacks, and his fellow linemen will get their chance to rush him.
Aaron Hosack, who's 6-5, leads in receptions with 45, but 6-1 Jared Ellerson has 44 catches for 909 yards Ñ 20.7 per catch Ñ and the Ducks fear him.
Minnesota pushes the run
The Gophers run 70 percent of the time.
'The reality is, this is a lot like Michigan Ñ you have to stop the run,' says Bellotti, whose defense limited the Wolverines to minus-3 yards rushing Sept. 20 and held OSU to 24 yards on the ground. 'If you don't stop the run, they'll run it down your throat.
'They're averaging 5.6 yards per carry. That's unbelievable. If I average that, there wouldn't be a lot of reason to throw the ball. We're not going to force them to throw until we stop the run. If and when we can do that, then we have to defend the wideout (Ellerson).'
Given Minnesota's propensity for yards and points, and Oregon's reputation coming from the wild Pac-10, could we have a shootout? Well, Minnesota coach Glen Mason took the same offense to El Paso in 1999, and the Ducks held the Gophers to 96 yards rushing Ñ but they gave up 257 yards passing and Oregon had to rally to win 24-20.
'They've been in every game they've played,' Bellotti says. 'The most lopsided loss was at Iowa in the last game (40-22), but they turned the ball over' five times, compared to 11 times in 11 previous games.
'They're a team that usually doesn't beat itself.'