How good is good

What do we really know about Oregon football after just one game into the season?

Perhaps we should start with the obvious. They beat 22nd ranked Wisconsin 31-28 in their season opener last weekend, a team that had edged a young and unranked Virginia team the preceding week. So, the 7th ranked Ducks who had not yet played a game beat Wisconsin who had the advantage of having previously played a game. However, the game was played at Autzen Stadium, a difficult venue for any visitor. But, it was a very close game decided in the fourth quarter after the lead had exchanged hands six times. What this point-counterpoint boils down to is in order to ascertain how good Oregon is one must first understand how good Wisconsin is.

"Wisconsin's a pretty good football team," said Oregon Coach Mike Bellotti speaking at the Oregon Club of Portland luncheon this Thursday. "They're better than I thought they'd be. They ran very well. They were very well coached. They were more diverse on offense and defense than last year or even than they were in their first game. They are not as predictable. They (use) different formations and looks. They put more speed on the field, especially on the defensive line. Their quarterback did a very nice job of putting the ball on the money, sometimes unbelievably so under pressure and getting hit. Lee Evans is a very good player. He is as good a receiver as we'll face this year. He has speed. He catches the ball. He's tough."

Good points all, coach. I too thought Wisconsin played well. In fact, probably well enough to win. But what does that mean for Oregon? It appears we'll know a lot more about Oregon and Wisconsin and even Oregon State after Wisconsin plays Fresno State this week. Previously unranked Fresno State shocked the world by beating No. 10 Oregon State last weekend 42-24. Reportedly, Fresno State has over 22 Proposition 48 scholarship players or non-qualifiers on their team. These are typically highly skilled athletes who could not academically qualify to attend a Pac-10 conference school but can make a huge difference on the field.

"It's a good match-up," said Bellotti. "Fresno State is a for real team. And, that's nothing new. They haven't just burst on the scene. They've been that way for several years. Fresno State at Wisconsin will tell us a lot about where we are at."

But what else can we say we know right now?

We know that Oregon has a 4,000-yard career quarterback in senior Joey Harrington, a guy who is 15-2 in games that he has started and who has a penchant rallying his team when trailing or in the final stages of a close contest. We also know that the offense Harrington directs has eight returning starters from last year including a 1,000-yard rusher and that there are quality players two and three deep in most offensive positions.

"Joey understands our offense better than any quarterback I've ever coached, that includes Bill Musgrave (and) Danny O'Neill," said Bellotti. "He is a tremendous student of the game. In the game (against Wisconsin) he threw the ball away three times and saved sacks when a lineman or back either missed or forgot to block or whatever. Joey also threw two or three passes he'd like back. They were mistakes of trust. He trusted his receivers would find the ball or get it away from the defensive back. Joey made some tremendous plays in the second half in terms of third down and long conversions."

But what about the running attack? The Ducks only netted 135 yards on the ground against Wisconsin and their 1,000 yard rusher from last year, Maurice Morris had only 18 yards on 15 carries. Again, how good is Wisconsin's run defense? True the Badgers are used to facing Big-10 opponents such as Ohio State and Michigan who make rushing the ball a mainstay of their offenses. But, are the Ducks good enough on the ground to provide a truly balanced attack throughout the season?

"We need to run the football better and that is a combination of Maurice, our offensive line and our coaches doing a better job," said Bellotti. "We didn't block very well at times (against Wisconsin). Maurice didn't run as well as he is capable of at times and we were not communicating at the line of scrimmage, meaning recognizing defensive fronts."

Something else that we know right now is that the Ducks are solidly coached. Cool as a cucumber, Coach Bellotti has orchestrated more wins during his six-year tenure than any other team in the Pac-10 Conference. Along with that the Ducks enjoy the 2nd longest home-winning streak with 21 consecutive victories at Autzen Stadium and have in fact never loss in the Nike-designed dark green uniforms first used in 1999. We don't need to know how good Wisconsin is this year to know that Ducks have an excellent coaching staff.

Coming into the season most would agree that the biggest question marks for the Ducks were on the defense where the Ducks lost seven starters including six of their front seven and on special teams where the Ducks lost both their starting punter and kicker. One thing that the Wisconsin game showed for certain was that kicking game is in good hands or should I say feet. The Ducks did not miss a field goal or PAT attempt and half their kickoffs made the end zone, something that hasn't been seen consistently at Oregon since the mid-90s.

"Our kicking game passed the test," said Bellotti. It can get a lot better. Jose Arroyo punted the ball very well. He had one poor punt on the entire day. He had several very good punts, high hang time and great direction that allowed us to cover."

The Oregon defense also appeared to have passed the test against Wisconsin. With the exception of one long touchdown run, most of Wisconsin's offensive production was through the air. And, that was allowed to a great extent by what appeared to be an off night by senior Oregon cornerback Steve Smith.

"I thought that overall our defensive front showed up," said Bellotti. "They were not great but they were more than adequate. We played nine people (up front) in the game, actually seven that we rolled in fairly frequently. They did pressure the quarterback. They did stop the run. They did make some mistakes. We did not play overwhelmingly well in the secondary. We can not give up big plays."

The secondary was bolstered by sophomore free safety Keith Lewis who finished the game with seven unassisted tackles and won the Pac-10 Conference defensive player of the week award.

"At least two or three (of the Lewis' tackles) were touchdown stoppers," said Bellotti.

Looking toward Oregon's 12:30 p.m. game in Autzen Stadium this Saturday against Utah one has to wonder how much better do the Ducks need to get after the Wisconsin game in order to prevail. Again, how good is Wisconsin? How good are the Ducks? Bellotti has said in the past that a football team realizes its most amount of improvement between its first and second games. If that hold true and if Wisconsin beats Fresno State, you might see the Ducks routing the Utes this week. Then again, the Ducks could play, as they have in the past, to whatever level their opponent plays to. Now wouldn't that just be enough to confound us all should Wisconsin handily beat Fresno State. Then, we might be asking next week, how good is Utah?

"I look at them as you would look at Fresno State," said Bellotti. They can get people in that we can't and they are physically very talented on both sides of the ball."

Notes:

Middle linebacker Dave Moretti, who played through a broken thumb against Wisconsin, is out for the Utah game.

Offensive guard Josh Jones began practice this week. He is still recuperating from surgery to repair a tendon in his calf. Bellotti indicated that he thought it would be "a couple of weeks before he's able to play."

Regarding the mix up with the seating in section 1 and 40 during the Wisconsin game Bellotti indicated that the University of Oregon is refunding money to some of the general admission and reserve seat ticket purchasers.

Bellotti also asked for help during the third quarter from the Oregon fans. He encourages people to get to seats faster and to be as noisy as they are when the game first starts.


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