No Turnovers Key to Beating Huskies

Husky week is here, as the University of Washington (4-5, 2-4) will travel to Autzen Stadium this Saturday to take on the Oregon Ducks (6-2, 3-2) in a game (Homecoming) starting at 12:30 p.m. Husky week is the revival of a rivalry that has cooled somewhat with the coaching change at Washington but Oregon's Mike Bellotti is reminding his team that beating Washington is something special.

The Ducks are now bowl eligible but with every win the Ducks are guaranteed a better bowl for post season play. Not that Bellotti is counting the Husky game as an automatic win because when asked, the Duck headman points out that Washington has been very competitive this year despite a losing record. For the last two weeks Washington has gone into overtime only to lose to California, 31-24 and then 26-23 to Arizona State last Saturday night. The Huskies are in the midst of a four-game losing streak and on paper appear to be primed for the picking.

Oregon recovered from a painful loss to Washington State two weeks ago by pummeling Portland State, 55-12 last weekend and asked what would be the keys to beating Washington this week, Bellotti was succinct in his response.

"Very simple, responded Bellotti to the question. "Don't turn the ball over."

Washington, according to Bellotti plays an aggressive defense. The Huskies will come after the Ducks and drop eight men into pass coverage. Regardless of what has transpired so for this season, if Oregon turns the ball over four times as they did against California and Washington State, homecoming will be pretty uncomfortable for all those celebrating Duck reunions with old friends. Bellotti felt that turnovers directly cost the Ducks the game against Washington State and added to problems that Cal already presented.

Last week, the Ducks did not turn the ball over which was a good sign even if the competition was from the Big Sky conference. One thing that did occur last week that Bellotti doesn't want duplicated on Homecoming was an explosion play by Mu'Ammar Ali, who broke off a 57-yard rushing touchdown. Bellotti does not want to see anymore big plays (over 25 yards) given up by his defense.

On paper, it wouldn't appear to be a problem for Oregon since none of the Washington running backs are averaging over 57 yards a game. Louis Rankin has 510 yards of net rushing this year on 112 carries this season and it the top ground gainer for the Huskies averaging 56.7 yards per game. Kenny James is the second leading rusher with 46.6-yard average, but both Rankin (68 yards) and James (54 yards) have broken loose for long runs. What concerns many Duck fans is that when the Ducks traveled to Pullman two weeks ago, no Washington State runner averaged over 49 yards a game. However, when the final whistle sounded in Martin Stadium, Dwight Tardy had crushed Oregon's BCS dreams with 147 yards rushing including a 46-yard touchdown run.

While long passing plays might be of concern because of the health of the Duck secondary, it does appear that some of the hospital unit, also known as the Oregon defense, may be back in action this week. Bellotti mentioned that he'll know more about the status of his secondary after mid-week, but even with a corps of beat up defenders, Oregon still ranks first in the Pac-10 in passing defense allowing only 144.2 yards per game and giving up only nine touchdowns this year.

One final point Bellotti feels is necessary to beat Washington is the special teams battle for field position. Last week the Ducks had great success against Portland State by starting three drives inside the PSU 30 on punt returns. All three drives ended up in scores.

Offensively the Ducks are hoping to get back tackle Geoff Schwartz and guard Josh Tschirgi who missed last week with a respective back injury and sprained ankle. Another cog in the Duck offense whose status is not clear is running back Jonathan Stewart. Stewart left the game last week early in the contest after he was pushed and toppled over a steel bench at least 10 yards out of bounds. Stewart is tentatively penciled in to start the game on the 2-deep roster included in the weekly media release but as insurance Bellotti mentioned that it is likely running back Andre Crenshaw would burn his redshirt year and see action against Washington. Crenshaw is now the No. 3 running back because of the injury to Andiel Brown. Brown broke a finger against the Vikings and will be lost for at least two games. Bellotti thought that Crenshaw would also see time on special teams.

Some posters on eDuck.com's message boards have questioned why Crenshaw's red shirt would be used up, as was quarterback Nathan Costa was last week against Portland State. Bellotti was very clear that it was a coaching decision and that circumstances dictated the end result. A coach may look to the future but in reality the game is about the here and now and what is necessary to put the team in the best position to win.

The Husky game this year hasn't generated the bantering back and forth between the programs which happened frequently in the past when the two teams were about to battle on the gridiron. In part Bellotti's estimation is that some of the hard feelings that might have developed occurred under a different regime in Seattle. Still, much of the Oregon-Washington rivalry is fostered by the media and carried on by fans posting messages on eDuck.com and Dawgman.com.

"I think as a head coach you get pulled into a war of words sometimes," Bellotti said of the rivalry with Washington. "I thought those things were drawn out by the media and the fans. If you've ever seen any of the postings over the years on boards or in chat rooms, it's an unbelievable deal."

Bellotti admits to making his team aware of the rivalry but has cautioned the Ducks not to do anything that would serve as "bulletin board material" and fire up Oregon's opponent.

In fact, Bellotti went so far as saying he believes that the Huskies are a better team this season than last because Washington plays hard and that is an essential step for a team coming back after some down years.

"I see this year's team competing better than last year's team," said Bellotti of the Huskies. "Statistically they are significantly better but I look at them and they are playing harder. I think the best compliment you can get from a coach is that your players play hard."

A few years ago when Oregon and Washington would square off, the difference between the two programs was obvious. There was no doubt that the Huskies ruled the Northwest as evidenced by their 17-3 advantage between 1974-93. During those years Husky fans would compliment the Ducks by the hustle displayed on the field, even if the talent was not there. Then in 1994 on a play that will be displayed again on DuckVision prior to kickoff, with Jerry Allen screaming "Kenny Wheaton gonna score" things changed. The Ducks now have the premier facilities in all of college football. Under Mike Bellotti, the Ducks are 100-46 and things are leveler between the two schools. In the last six games the teams are 3-3.

The Ducks started the 2006 season off with a bang and even with two setbacks are still rated the No. 22 (USA Today Poll) team in the country. A Duck win means a rise in the polls for Oregon and more important another step toward a better bowl appearance.

For most Duck fans though, beating the Huskies is a reward in itself.

Kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. The game will be carried live on TBS with Chip Carey, Tom Ramsey and David Aldridge. Oregon Sports Network will replay the game on a delay basis at 11:30 p.m. with Joe Giansante and Anthony Newman. OSN Radio will start the pre-game coverage at 11:30 a.m. with Jerry Allen, Mike Jorgensen and Jay Allen.

Subscribers to eDuck.com are invited to join other fans in Chat held every night starting at 9 p.m. (Pacific) and of course during the game.

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