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November 6, 2010

Underdog Washington could get dizzy in Autzen Stadium

EUGENE, Ore. - As the sun began to set some 18 hours before kickoff, there was an empty silence around Autzen Stadium.

A few Oregon Ducks fans in motor homes started their tailgating early, but mostly, activity was minimal, just a few gawkers mulling around outside the gates in an otherwise tranquil setting.

Call it the calm before the storm.

When the Washington Huskies step on to the field at Autzen Stadium Saturday, they will receive a reception that is unparallel to any they'll have this season.

There's not much love between the Huskies and Ducks. And, at 12:36 p.m. Saturday, the No. 1-ranked Ducks (8-0) have a chance to kick the Huskies (3-5) while they're down.

For those expecting mercy, there's a better chance of a round house to the chin strap.

The Huskies have done everything in their power this week to prepare for the setting and the opponent.

At practice this week, sideline speakers blared at Husky Stadium to try to simulate the crowd noise while the Huskies ran plays.

The Huskies also tried to practice at a faster pace to be better prepared for Oregon's no huddle, spread-option offense.

"It was twice as fast," Huskies defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu said of practice. "There was no rest time between plays."

Oregon's offense has entered warp speed under coach Chip Kelly.

Kelly brought a version of his spread offense to Oregon from his days as an assistant at New Hampshire. He's continued to tinker with his system, speeding up the offense more by employing a play-calling system that uses images on poster cards.

Oregon leads the nation in total offense (572.9 yards per game) and scoring (54.9 points per game) and is third in the nation in rushing (308.8 yards per game).

"It gets tough on those guys out there," said Huskies defensive coordinator Nick Holt, who added that substituting is difficult against Oregon. "They spread you out and you've got to play the run game and the pass game … and their speed."

"They are really fast," Ta'amu said. "They are like a college version of Bellevue (High School). You don't know where the ball is sometimes. They've got a lot of good athletes on the team."

The most notable is sophomore running back LaMichael James, a Heisman Trophy candidate who leads the nation in rushing (172.9 yards per game) and all-purpose yards (189.6).

"Really, it's not just the system," Kelly said. "You've got to have players.

"We've got really good players playing at a high level."

The Huskies will try to pick themselves up after what coach Steve Sarkisian called "hitting rock bottom" in a 41-0 home loss to Stanford last week.

But Washington will try to do so with a new quarterback on offense and a young defense that is allowing 34.1 points and 429.8 yards per game - both ranked No. 9 in the Pac-10 ahead of Washington State.

Redshirt freshman Keith Price will make his first college start, replacing senior Jake Locker, who's out with a cracked rib.

The Huskies replaced their two true freshman starting offensive linemen (Colin Porter and Erik Kohler) with more experienced players (seniors Gregory Christine and Cody Habben) in the first unit this week, but are sticking with true freshmen Sione Potoa'e and Hau'oli Jamora on the starting defensive line.

"It was an awful night," Sarkisian said of the Stanford game. "To go out there and have 100 yards of offense (actually 107) is a joke. One step back means we can still take two steps forward and have a better football team. This is character building for us."

And no better test of character than facing the No. 1 team in the land inside a sold-out stadium known for its rabid fans.

"I think the best way to describe the atmosphere is crazy," said Sarkisian, whose Huskies are 36-point underdogs. "I feel it's almost helter skelter in a sense. They've got a real vibe in that stadium. It's a great college football atmosphere."

Oregon will be the sixth ranked opponent for Washington in the past seven games. The Huskies defeated a pair of ranked teams in Southern California and Oregon State this season.

Washington has played 11 games against No. 1 ranked teams, going 1-9-1. The only victory was over top-ranked Minnesota in the 1961 Rose Bowl.

"You've got to embrace the underdog role and take it on," Sarkisian said. "We're going to give them a fight and give them a battle and they're going to know they played the Huskies for 60 minutes."

But the big question for Washington is: Which Huskies?


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