By JOHN SLEEPER
On its first attempted play from scrimmage Saturday, UCLA was flagged for a false start.
The Bruins would have five more false-start penalties called on their offensive line for moving before quarterback Ryan McCann’s signal. At one point, UCLA had three false starts in a row.
The culprit: The crowd at Autzen Stadium at the University of Oregon. Even with a mere 42,000-seat capacity, Autzen’s roar blisters eardrums and turns finely tuned game plans to sawdust.
“It’s the loudest place I’ve ever played,” said Rock Nelson, tackle for the sixth-ranked Washington Huskies, who make the trek to green and gold hell in Eugene to play the 20th-ranked Ducks Saturday.
Already rowdy, some of the fans have taken their enthusiasm to new, ugly heights. Following the Ducks’ 29-10 victory over UCLA Saturday, a number of fans taunted Bruin players Brian Poli-Dixon and Freddie Mitchell into a near-brawl as they walked to the visitors’ lockerroom.
The melee prompted UO officials to beef up security around the stadium for this week’s game.
Which leads to the question: With all the hubbub, how can the Huskies expect to win?
Forget the post-game shenanigans. Autzen will be thundering, especially against Washington, which Oregon fans place on the same plane as the first prehistoric, amphibious organism that crawled out of the slime.
They were loud against UCLA. They’ll be louder Saturday.
“If you’re not prepared for that and you’re surprised by it, it certainly can have an effect,” UW coach Rick Neuheisel said. “I think we are clearly aware of what kind of home crowd Oregon has. We played a game in a similar situation.”
That would be Colorado two weeks ago, in which Buffalo fans took out their hostility on Neuheisel, who, so the sentiment goes, left the program in shambles as he was money-whipped into taking the Husky job.
Boulder, Colo., while a training ground for Autzen, may not be as intimidating.
“It was rough in Boulder, man,” defensive tackle Larry Tripplett said. “But it’s going to be different Saturday. In Colorado, the focus was on Coach Neuheisel. This week, they hate us. They may hate Coach Neuheisel a little bit, but they hate us, period. They hate everything about purple.”
Who really knows the origin? The important thing is, with a Rose Bowl berth likely at stake, Washington can’t afford to let the crowd ruin its snap cadence and audibles.
It’s a reality that quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo will have to change several plays at the line of scrimmage once he checks Oregon’s defensive formations. And with the constant blare raining down from the stands, that won’t be an easy thing.
“You just have to make sure that there’s enough time on the clock, because you might need to yell things a couple of times,” Tuiasosopo said. “You have to maybe step a little farther out from center to yell the play. It just makes it a little harder because guys have to look up.
“Usually, they hear it. It went fairly well against Colorado. There were maybe 10 plays where we had one guy who didn’t know what was going on. But that was the first time, and we should be able to correct that.”
The noise affects interior linemen more than anyone, even the wideouts. While Tuiasosopo can use hand signals to indicate the play to his receivers, linemen have to physically turn around and look at him.
Not only that, but while the wall of sound falls on them, they have to look at the ball to see when it is snapped, thereby ruining whatever advantage they have against the defensive line. It also will distract them from noticing stunts on the defensive line.
“I try to get off as fast as I can off of that,” Nelson said. “Hopefully, they’ll keep the snap counts simple and not check too often. But that’s the whole thing about having the homefield advantage.”
To help prepare, the Huskies have played piped-in crowd noise over loudspeakers at field level. In addition, the Husky band has played in the latter stages of practice in full decibel mode.
Is it enough?
“I think we get a pretty good evaluation of what it’s going to be like,” wideout Todd Elstrom said. “The way Husky Stadium is built, the noise is just going to settle in around the field. It’s probably as close as you’re going to get.”
Players hardly escape the haranguing once they leave the field. The stands are just 30 feet from the benches. Unlike Husky Stadium, Autzen has no track circling the football field. Players hear every opinion fans have about themselves, their families and their looks.
“They’re pretty amazing, some of the things they say,” defensive tackle Spencer Marona said.
So that’s what awaits the Huskies Saturday. Some have faced it. Some haven’t. Colorado’s Folsom Field was a good training ground, but that’s all it was.
It’s not Autzen.
“The important thing to remember is that you have a job to do,” Neuheisel said. “And for those 60 minutes, we have to focus on the job and not focus on the extracurricular things that aren’t going to help us get it done between the lines.”
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