Ducks off to El Paso

The Oregon Ducks (8-4) land in El Paso at noon Central Time on Wednesday and immediately begin preparations for the 74th Annual Brut Sun Bowl. As soon as the Ducks get off the plane they will be met with typical Southwest hospitality including Mariachis and Folklorico Dancers.

After the welcoming festivities the Ducks head off to the practice field at 3 p.m. Their opponent, the Bulls of the University of South Florida arrive at 4.

This is the first meeting between the two teams and earlier in the year it appeared quite possible the match up would have been in New Orleans. A series of injuries and misfortune caused both teams to be knocked out of the BCS Championship contention and now they face each other in West Texas.

Oregon hopes that freshmen quarterbacks Justin Roper and Cody Kempt have picked up enough confidence and knowledge of the spread offense so that Oregon more closely resembles the team that defeated USC and Arizona State rather than the team that struggled against Arizona and UCLA. Key to the success of the Ducks is the health and performance of running back Jonathan Stewart. The Pac-10 leading rusher with 1,469 yards on 257 carries, Stewart scored 10 touchdowns and averaged 122.4 yards per game.

"He's strong, explosive, and has great vision so when you have an opening he's going to take it and get some yards," said USF Head Coach Jim Leavitt. "You can't arm tackle him; a number of people are going to have to hit and wrap up, and we've had some times where our defense has tackled very well; other times where we haven't tackled very well. Hopefully this game will be a game where we tackle well. Because if we don't we'll have a difficult time because he is going to be key in their offense like he has been all year."

Stewart's teammates also understand how important the running game is going to be in El Paso, and the big linemen up front would like to make amends for the last three games of the season. The Ducks average 242.3 yards per contest rushing the ball, but against UCLA, the Ducks could only manage 34 net yards. There is no question that the loss of Dennis Dixon was a huge blow to the Ducks, but the team's performance, particularly the offensive line, was very uncharacteristic. The line now has a chance to finish off the year as they started.

"We have to run the ball every game, especially this game, and Jonathan (Stewart) will be healthy," said senior Geoff Schwartz, who will be playing his last game as a Duck.

The Oregon line is facing a defensive front that is fast and quick but are not particularly big. If Oregon is to be successful, it must use its athleticism that had been the trademark of the Duck offense - create holes for the Oregon running game and give the young Duck quarterbacks time to pass.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Ducks are facing a very mobile quarterback who is also an accurate passer. Matt Grothe passed for 2,473 yards on 214 completions on 357 attempts, 13 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Grothe also rushed for 832 net yards and crossed the goal line 10 times.

"We have to play smart, know when he's going to run or pass," said defensive end Nick Reed of Grothe. "There's a lot of plays where it's built-in runs, quarterback counter or draw, other times he feels pressure and runs."

Carlton Mitchell is the Bulls' leading receiver with 37 catches for 537 yards and four touchdowns. Jessie Hester has 31 catches and four touchdowns. In all the Bulls have nine receivers in double-figure catches for the year. USF averaged 228.5 yards in passing for the year.

"They're similar to receivers we have in the Pac-10; some tall, good speed," observed cornerback Walter Thurmond. "They don't throw the ball a whole lot, their quarterback (Matt Grothe) likes to run. He's pretty accurate when he's on the run."

Running back Mike Ford averages 4.8 yards per carry and toted the ball 132 times this season for 670 yards and 12 touchdowns.

"They do a lot of things," said Mike Bellotti of the Bulls. "(Mike) Ford, when healthy, he's a quality running back. They do so many things, maybe more than any team we've seen this year."

Bellotti believes USF will run everything from the wishbone to five wideouts, going from power sets to the shotgun formation. Bellotti is very concerned about the offensive variety; add in a mobile quarterback and there are plenty of things to keep the Ducks occupied while they are in El Paso.

Kickoff for the Sun Bowl is 11 a.m. (Pacific Time) and will be televised nationally on CBS.

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