By JOHN SLEEPER
EUGENE, Ore. – The crowd at Autzen Stadium is a given. No surprises there.
What’s more of a guess is what wild offensive schemes the No. 20 Oregon Ducks will throw at the sixth-ranked Washington Huskies today.
Against UCLA a week ago, the Ducks lined up flanker Jason Willis as a tailback for one play and sent him on a sweep to the right. Throw in a wildly entertaining array of reverses, halfback option passes and other gimmicks and you have nothing in particular that you can expect.
Other than the Ducks can break a big play from anywhere on the field.
“Oregon is very creative, offensively,” UW coach Rick Neuheisel said. “They think outside the dots. They don’t limit themselves to running backs lining up as running backs. They do a lot of different things that make defenses try to keep up with them.”
If a gimmick works, it sends an already frenzied Autzen crowd into convulsions. UCLA got caught up in it. So rattled was the offensive line that it was flagged for six false starts, including three on three plays.
Washington can’t afford to have that happen. A solid Rose Bowl hopeful, the Huskies have too much at stake to let the crowd derail them.
“We’re going in with the idea that we have yet to see a stadium make a tackle,” Neuheisel said.
While many give Autzen credit for Oregon’s 17-game home winning streak, the fact is that Oregon is just plain good.
“(Autzen) is loud, aggressive and it’s hard to use audibles,” Washington State coach Mike Price said. “No one can hear. The fans break your focus and concentration.
“The other thing is the Duck football team. You aren’t playing St. Mary’s Sisters of the Poor. They’ve got it going there.”
It starts with tailback Maurice Morris, the most highly sought JC player in the nation last year. Morris averages better than 118 yards a game and 5.2 yards a carry. The Ducks also use him as a pass receiver out of the backfield in their wide array of screen passes.
“He was one we counted on to come in and fill the void left by Reuben Droughns,” UO coach Mike Bellotti said. “He’s a tough kid with great speed. He’s one of those backs who seems to get stronger as the game goes on.”
As high-powered and unpredictable as Oregon’s offense is, however, the Ducks have had to do it without a great game from quarterback Joey Harrington. Harrington, a junior, completes just 48 percent of his passes.
“I think, by Joey’s own admission, he’s had a couple of fairly average games,” Bellotti said. “And in a great performance in one game, he did not get great support from his receivers. We dropped about 10 passes against Wisconsin and three touchdowns. But Joey is a winner. He finds ways to make plays.”
Keenan Howry and Marshaun Tucker lead a talented receiving corps that can break open a game at any time.
To counter Oregon’s big-play capability, Washington will need another impressive performance by tackle Larry Tripplett, who has four sacks this season, and the rest of the front seven has to keep up its play against the run. If the Huskies bottle up Morris in the same fashion as they did Miami’s trio of backs, Washington has a chance.
By the same token, the secondary has to keep Howry and Tucker in front of it.
“I don’t think you can stop Morris,” Neuheisel said. “What you want to do is try to prevent him from going crazy. It’s the same with their receivers. We can’t afford to give up the big play. We have to play good, sound defense.”