But, in the final analysis there should be no question who should prevail come this Saturday's 5:00 p.m. football game pitting No. 7 Oregon against No. 22 Wisconsin in the confines of Autzen Stadium. Oregon should win the game. The fact is, quite a few people will be significantly disappointed should Oregon not only win but also win big. I certainly fall in that category. I'm even hearkening back to 1998 when another Top 25 Big 10 team came to Autzen Stadium to begin Oregon's season and got blown out 48-14. That was Michigan State - a team that at that time appears to have more weapons than today's Wisconsin team – a team that also played against an unranked Oregon team that finished 8-4 on the year. Welcome to Autzen Stadium, Wisconsin!
Actually, the only thing that perhaps stands in Oregon's way against Wisconsin this Saturday is Oregon itself. You see, Oregon is now the hunted not the hunter.
"It's a lot easier in my mind being the underdog," said Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti speaking at the Oregon Club of Portland Thursday luncheon. "It's a great psychological ploy to talk about the lack of respect. The tougher deal right now is to figure out how you work from a point of respect or position of respect in being the favorite. I'm concerned about how our team handles the role that people have given them. Do they expect things to happen versus understanding they need to make things happen."
To provide the proper perspective to his team Bellotti has gone to quoting New York Yankees manager Joe Torres' management style that was recently published in Fortune magazine. "Be intense not tense. Be confident not cocky. Be aggressive not arrogant."
If you let it, all of the hype this year surrounding Oregon football can make your head swim: the highest ever preseason ranking, a gigantic Joey "Heisman" poster on a building in Manhattan, other player billboards in San Francisco and Los Angeles; the cover of Sports Illustrated; four USA Today sports page covers in the last month, syndicated writers from all over the country; lights, camera, action. It is crazy out there. People are not only openly mentioning Oregon in the same breath with the conference championship but with the national championship.
"Our kids deserve that attention," continues Bellotti. "However, they have to earn the acclaim. I think they have a good sense of that. I don't think that our kids are over-confident."
It is interesting that despite all the national attention Bellotti continues to focus his team on very short-term and achievable step-by-step goals. In a recent radio interview Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington was caught not even knowing who the team's next opponents were after Wisconsin.
"It's very important that our kids have the basic goal of winning this very first game," said Bellotti. "We are going to beat Wisconsin because that's our goal and then we'll take the second team whoever it may be and then the third team and then we want to have a winning a season. Then, we want to compete for the conference championship and we want to get to a bowl game and we want to get to the best bowl game and we want to win that bowl game and then we'll win the national championship. That's how it's built and that's how it's done.
"We can talk about the Rose Bowl and the national championship. They are all rolled into one this year. I'm a traditionalist. The Rose Bowl is everything to me. It's awesome and an opportunity for us to compete would be the greatest dream, but because it is also the national championship it adds that much more luster to it. It will take all of our efforts for four full quarters from snap to whistle for an entire season to make this dream come true. I tell my players that a scrap of paper that says we might be No. 1 or No. 10 or No. 7 or No. 8 doesn't make a tackle doesn't catch a pass or make a block."
Sorry Wisconsin. The Oregon team is focused. It is extraordinarily talented, particularly on offense. It is deep and it is playing in Autzen Stadium where Oregon has built the nation's second-longest winning streak of 21 games dating back to 1997. But perhaps most important, the Oregon players appear to be as motivated to prove they can succeed when they are ranked and the hunted as they were when they were the hunter and striving to receive recognition.
Speaking of the Autzen Stadium 12th man mystique, Coach Bellotti indicated that the new field turf is ready for its debut. "There's only one other college in the U.S., Western Michigan, that has it," said Bellotti. "So you can't go anywhere to work out on it or try it. When Wisconsin comes in it will be the fist time they ever set foot on it. And, you must run with proper mechanics. It is something that is an acquired and learned talent. I think it will be much the same thing we've had in terms of a significant home field advantage." The turf, called "Next Turf" has been described as being very close to the old Autzen Stadium artificial turf but more of a next generation. It has longer grass fibers that are non-abrasive and uses ground-up rubber particles instead of sand in its base.
Concerning Oregon's newly installed special teams Bellotti speaks fairly optimistically. He says that the defense and offense platoon starters that played on special teams last year will continue to do so this year. However, the coaches are going to limit the starters to their two best special teams rather than play them on all special teams formations. This should keep the starters fresh and help reduce the threat of injury. "Our kicking duties are not up in the air by question mark; they are somewhat up in the air by design," says Bellotti. "I know who can kick. I think we have more than one person who can handle these jobs. Right now, if we kick a field goal, it would be (freshman) Jared Siegel. If we kick off, it would be (junior transfer) Jose Arroyo. If we kick a long field goal, it would be (junior transfer) David Rosenberg. If we punt, it would be Jose Arroyo. I may have (freshman) Eric Evans punt in early games so that we have two guys that have done this. I think they're all close in the competition. I expect our kicking game in terms of PAT/field goals to be significantly improved over last year. I also expect our kick-off game to be significantly improved over last year."
It looks like three true freshman, excluding the kickers, might find themselves on the field Saturday. Ramone Reed from Suisun, Calif. has earned the position backing up sophomore inside linebacker Kevin Mitchell. Robbie Valenzuela from Manteca, Calif. has also earned the back-up position behind senior defensive tackle Zack Freiter. And, outside linebacker Terrance Whitehead from Los Angeles, Calif. has moved up the depth charts as well and may be called upon.
Bellotti describes Mitchell as the "most instinctive" player on the defense with "tremendous recognition." Although Mitchell is only 5-10 and 212 pounds, he has a tremendous nose for the football. Another defensive player that is emerging is junior defensive end Quinn Dorsey who at 6-4 and 265 pounds is capable of running a 4.59-second forty-yard dash. "There are very few people that can combine that kind of athleticism, size and speed on the field," says Bellotti.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Kevin Mack is 6-2 and 250 pounds and can run a 4.6-second forty. Bellotti describes him as "probably the best natural pass rusher we have."
Walk-on senior defensive tackle Chris Tetterton will start. And although he is only 6-0 and 275 pounds Bellotti says "we tried to find people to beat him out – he just keeps coming through."
Bellotti indicates that sophomore transfer Onterrio Smith will back up All American candidate Maurice Morris at tailback. "I don't know if he is as great a running back as Maurice Morris, but he might be a better overall football player," says Bellotti. "He'll play on special teams; he'll do some things. He's a different runner, more of a cut-back runner, break-tackles guy."
Bellotti also indicated that junior tailback Allan Amundson is "the fastest player we've ever had in the program." Apparently Amundson has run a 4.13-second hand-held forty. To give you an idea how fast that is, All American former Oregon track and football star Pat Johnson's best forty time was 4.29 seconds.
Bellotti also said that sophomore fullback Matt Floberg "makes what I hope will be one of the biggest success stories this year" by continuing to improve dramatically. Currently he has risen to the back-up role behind senior Josh Line allowing sophomore Josh Rogers to move to tight end.
True freshman defensive end Rodekus Wright is waiting for a response from the NCAA concerning his eligibility appeal. Bellotti indicated that the appeal, due to Wright's extenuating circumstances, was 90 pages whereas most appeals of similar nature are only 5-10 pages. Bellotti remains hopeful Wright will be cleared. Wright is currently living and working in Eugene.