Whether it was relayed in the body language of Wendell Bryant or in the blunt words of head coach Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin’s fear of and respect for Oregon have been transmitted loud and clear.
Following UW’s victory over Virginia, Bryant squirmed in his chair at the mention of the Ducks.
Alvarez took a more direct approach with his direct statement during the post-game press conference.
“We’ll have to get much better just to be able to stay on the field with Oregon,” Alvarez said.
Whether or not they have what it takes to compete for the victory, UW will nonetheless make the long trip to the West Coast to play the No.8 Ducks.
Last season the Badgers hosted Oregon and claimed the 27-23 victory during the non-conference game. But things will be different for this matchup. For one, Jamar Fletcher is gone. In last season’s contest Fletcher grabbed three interceptions from Oregon’s Heisman-hopeful Joey Harrington. And more importantly, this year’s game will be played in Eugene, at a stadium that is known for its high decibel level and annoyance to opposing teams.
According to Alvarez, there isn’t really one thing that he can pinpoint that makes Autzen Stadium but it has plagued opposing teams over the last three seasons. No one has stolen a win from Oregon at home since UCLA defeated the Ducks at Autzen on Oct. 11, 1997. Oregon’s 20-game home winning streak can be attributed to close-knit design of the stadium. A mere 30 feet separates the seats and the sidelines and high sides trap the noise in, making the field even louder than usual.
Then there’s the turf. UW receiver Lee Evans doesn’t exactly know what kind of turf they have in Eugene but he knows what it isn’t.
“It’s not grass, I know that,” Evans said.
But UW is well aware of these obstacles and is making the necessary preparations in order to put its best foot forward Sept. 1. Alvarez said they will use simulated crowd noises during practices the week before the game to get accustomed to making plays under those circumstances. UW will also make preparations for the turf conditions. Wisconsin scheduled two practices in Eugene before the actual game so the players get used to the odd field surface.
But then there are circumstances that UW can’t control and all the preparing in the world couldn’t help. One of these obstacles is quarterback Joey “Heisman” Harrington. These days Harrington is bigger than life — he even covers a 100-foot billboard in Manhattan that faces Madison Square Garden. Last year Harrington threw for 362 yards against UW, and he’s looking to improve on those numbers in his quest for the Heisman. While UW played an early game against Virginia Aug. 25, Oregon has been waiting to kick its season off against UW, and Harrington has been saving his arm for the season debut. He played in only two series during the Ducks team scrimmage Aug. 24 and tallied 34 yards in three of six passing — which was seven fewer yards than UW quarterback Brooks Bollinger recorded in the entire first half against the Cavaliers.
While Harrington poses a threat to any secondary, his arm is even more lethal to the Badgers’ young defensive back corps. In the season opener the DBs were not really tested by UVA’s quarterback combo of Schaub and Spinner, but Harrington is sure to put pressure on the secondary by launching the long ball.
“The competition has upgraded considerably [from the Virginia game],” Alvarez said. “There will be a lot of pressure on the secondary. They’ll have to play well for us to have a chance.”
And if the secondary does stop the air raid, they will have to contend with the ground game as well. The Ducks have a talented runner in Maurice Morris that can rack up the yardage. Last year Morris only ran for 92 yards against UW, but he tallied 1188 yards on the season.
“You can’t overplay the pass because they can really run the ball,” Alvarez said. “That back is outstanding.”
What makes this offensive unit scarier for Wisconsin is the uncertainty of its own scoring corps. With Bollinger recovering from a contusion of the liver that he suffered against Virginia and his playing status not expected to be determined until late in the week, there is no sure answer as to who will be in the pocket when UW and Oregon face off. Backup QB Jim Sorgi is preparing for the game as if he’ll be the starter, but he will not receive official word until it is determined whether or not Bollinger will receive medical clearance. If Sorgi does get the start, Alvarez said that the game plan for Oregon will not change, and it is not a situation where he feels UW is putting its backup QB against Oregon’s Heisman candidate.
“I couldn’t ask for anything more than Jim Sorgi,” Alvarez said. ” I have all the confidence [in him] in the world. To me, Jim’s just like a starter, just like Brooks is.”
On Saturday, Sorgi may be a UW starter, but he will have to play well in adverse conditions in order to steal the spotlight from Oregon’s sure starter, the Heisman hopeful.