Ducks respect Gophers' running game

Oregon finished the season with three wins, but the Ducks' coaching staff isn't taking the Gophers' running game lightly.

A glance at bowl opponent Minnesota told Oregon coach Mike Bellotti plenty about the Gophers.

"We're very excited to be back at the Sun Bowl and playing a great team like Minnesota," Bellotti said. "I really didn't know how good of a team until I looked at their statistics. It's a daunting task."

Notably, Minnesota has one of most powerful running games in the nation, with a deep stable of backs headed by Marion Barber III and freshman Laurence Maroney. The Gophers rank third nationally in rushing with 293.17 yards per game, trailing only option-oriented teams Navy and Rice.

But Minnesota is more than just a straight-ahead running team. Senior QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq ranks third nationally with a passing efficiency rating of 165.6. He manages the game well, completes almost 64 percent of his passes and has a TD-interception ratio of 17-5.

That's a tall task for an Oregon defense that hasn't exactly been consistent this season, ranking 70th nationally by allowing 26.4 points per game.

Of course, the whole team hasn't been very consistent, starting 4-0 and reaching No. 10 in the nation before suffering some horrific losses, such as 55-16 to Washington State, 59-14 at Arizona State and 42-10 to Washington.

But just when it seemed as if this team would go in the tank, it pulled itself up and won its final three games, giving the program a big boost ... not only for this season, but for next when the Ducks figure to return 15 starters, including nine on offense.

"We're very excited that we finished strongly in our conference," said Bellotti, whose contract rollover kicked in after the season, extending his deal through the 2008 season.

But the first order of business is beating a very good Minnesota team.

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

BY THE NUMBERS: 156.7 — The difference in the average rushing totals between Minnesota (293.2) and Oregon (136.5). The Ducks have plenty of team speed, but not one great threat at tailback, while the Gophers have an embarrassment of riches in the backfield. The team that runs better usually wins ... not great news for the Ducks.

GAME OF THE YEAR: A 21-17 win over Cal on Nov. 8 saved the season, but, clearly, the game of the year was the 31-27 victory over then-No. 3 Michigan on Sept. 20. The Wolverines' Heisman Trophy finalist Chris Perry was held to 26 yards and Michigan actually ended up in negative rushing numbers (minus 3) for the afternoon. Michigan challenged in the fourth quarter, but the Ducks got a fumble recovery in the end zone after a blocked punt to make it 31-21. The Wolverines got a touchdown pass with 2:18 left, but couldn't get closer than the final margin.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: DL Igor Olshansky vs. Minnesota's offensive line — Olshansky is a 300-pounder who can play the end or the tackle position. He's the focal point of a defensive line that can be very good against the run (see the Michigan game), and that aspect of the defense will go a long way toward dictating how the game against the Gophers goes.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We beat Michigan to go 4-0 and we were on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I think there really is a jinx. We lost three straight." — Oregon coach Mike Bellotti on his team's mid-season slump after beating the Wolverines.

BOWL SCENARIO: Oregon vs. Minnesota, Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas, Dec. 31 — It's a rematch of the 1999 Sun Bowl, which the Ducks won 24-21. This time around, it's a very interesting matchup of a team that runs the ball as well as any team in the nation (Minnesota) against a defense that prides itself in stopping the run above all else. The Ducks allow only 95.9 rushing yards per game, 12th-best in the nation, and figure to dare Gophers QB Asad Abdul-Khaliq to beat them with the pass.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Kellen Clemens — Solidified himself as the starting quarterback late in the season, leading a fourth-quarter comeback against Cal and then directing wins over UCLA and Oregon State. He has six touchdown passes and only one interception in his last nine quarters.

LB Kevin Mitchell — Voted the team's most outstanding player, Mitchell is a superb sideline-to-sideline linebacker who made a team-high 103 tackles.

PRO POTENTIAL: LB Kevin Mitchell — He began the year as a 220-pound middle linebacker and was down to 200 by the Civil War. With good speed and instincts, might he end up at a safety position on the next level?

WR Samie Parker — He's only 5-11, but the guy is a blazer. Every NFL team has room for someone like that.

INJURY IMPACT: Looking ahead to next season, the Ducks will bring back two key players who missed all (or nearly all) of the season. WR Keith Allen, who suffered a torn ACL in fall camp, will help fill the void left by Samie Parker. DT Haloti Ngata, who suffered a knee injury in the first quarter of the opener against Mississippi State, will be back to help anchor the defensive line. ... The Ducks played all season without starting senior guard Joey Forster, who suffered an ACL injury in camp.

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