Oregon Ducks (2000: 10-2)
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Coach and programThe numbers at Oregon get downright scary.
Senior quarterback Joey Harrington (6-4, 220) led the Pac-10 in total offense last season with 256.3 yards a game. Heís back.
Senior tailback Maurice Morris (6-0, 205) was second in the conference in rushing last season at 100.5 yards per game. Heís back.
In all, eight members of the Ducksí potent offense that put up 408.9 yards a game are back.
Most of all, head coach Mike Bellotti, the guy who has transformed Oregon into the Pac-10ís most consistent powerhouse, is back. Bellotti was getting all kinds of feelers last season from programs that wondered if he could work the same magic in their town that he has done in Eugene. When the dust cleared, Bellotti stayed at home and started preparing for 2001.
It should be a fun and rewarding season for Ducks fans, who are accustomed now to bowl appearances. Last year it was the Holiday Bowl, a game in which the Ducks beat Texas, 35-30.
Bellotti knows that if his team is going to be ranked among the best in the nation, he has some holes to plug. Not only did he lose a lot of defensive starters, he lost some excellent special teams players, including both his main return men, his punter and placekicker. He knows pollsters that rate his team in the top 10 probably arenít examining his problems.
ďI donít worry very much about what people say in the early-season or preseason polls,Ē he said. ďThe only poll Iím interested in is the final one."
After a tough opener with Wisconsin, the Ducks play host to Utah, a team that fell on its face in 2000. The Pac-10 season opens a week later with a home game against USC, followed by the final non-conference game against Utah State.
Just like last season, when the conference title couldnít be decided because Oregon and Washington didnít play each other, the two teams miss each other again in 2001. Oregonís two biggest games really are its final two, an away date at UCLA and a home finale against rival Oregon State.
One thing is certain: Every opponent will gear up for the Ducks, who no longer are considered a surprise team when they creep into the national rankings.
OffenseBesides leading the conference in total offense, Harrington was No. 1 in passing yardage (247.3) and touchdown passes (22). Harrington completed 212-of-405 passes (52.8 percent) last season for 2,967 yards with 14 interceptions. He piled up 3,091 yards of total offense.
Besides being so effective as a passer, Harrington also proved he was effective on an occasional run. He scored six rushing touchdowns last season and finished with 125 rushing yards.
ďThe one thing I know about Harrington is that he is not going to rest on his laurels,Ē Bellotti said.
Morris came from Fresno City Junior College last year and lived up to his reputation as the nationís No. 1 junior college recruit. He showed his toughness by pounding inside to pick up yards, and also displayed his explosiveness (his long was 66 yards). He scored eight touchdowns and averaged 4.2 yards a carry.
ďMo is such a threat,Ē Harrington said. ďA good example was last season against USC. I hadnít had a great start, so they put eight or nine guys in the box [to stop Morris]. We threw for 350 yards on them.Ē
Keenan Howry (5-10, 170) in two years has become an awesome weapon. The junior caught 52 balls for 780 yards last season with five touchdowns. Now that Marshaun Tucker has graduated, Howry becomes the focus of Oregonís passing game.
At tight end, senior Justin Peelle (6-5, 245) is a returning starter who caught 24 passes for 388 yards and five touchdowns in 2000.
Defense and special teamsReplacing impact player Saul Patu, who had 19 tackles for loss and 11 quarterback sacks in 2000, is the main goal. Junior defensive end Seth McEwen (6-5, 255) is the lone returning starter up front and he had the fewest numbers of the starting linemen last year with 16 tackles, including four for loss.
With the defense losing so many bodies, as well as a punter, Bellotti went for the quick fix in the junior college market, signing six players. All are juniors.
Defensive linemen Junior Siavii (6-5, 335) and Darrell Wright (6-3, 235), Martin and cornerback Countney Miller (6-1, 190) all will get a shot at earning significant snaps immediately
One of Oregonís huge losses was middle linebacker Matt Smith, another tackling machine that Bellotti seems to produce on a yearly basis. Smith had 90 tackles last season, including 11 for loss.
Junior college transfer David Martin (5-11, 205) is arriving in summer camp and he will get a long look.
Senior cornerback Rashad Bauman (5-8, 180), who had four interceptions last season to tie for the team lead with the departed Smith, registered 32 tackles in 2000. At free safety, junior Rasuli Webster (6-0, 210) was an impact player last season with 59 tackles.
Bottom lineIt appears to be the year of the tailback in the Pac-10 and opponents will have to find a way to stop that rushing attack or watch with its offense standing on the sideline. The best way to beat Oregon is to keep its offense off the field, so opposing coaches should be content to blast away at the middle of the line, especially if the Ducks are soft up front.
Of course, thatís a nice thought for opponents, but Bellotti always seems to find people to come through, and this season might not be any different.
Another Pac-10 championship certainly is a possibility, but the bet here is that the Ducks fall just a bit short. A return to the Holiday Bowl wouldnít be a huge surprise.