EUGENE, ORE. – You know all those things that Washington fans are wondering about this Huskies football team?
Oregon coach Mike Bellotti is wondering, too.
There’s always some mystery mixed in with the start of a new football season. However, the 2008 Huskies have taken that to extremes.
No one outside of the Washington locker room quite knows what changes Ed Donatell might have brought to the UW defense. And the same goes for Brian White with special teams.
Add in about a dozen and a half players on the depth chart who have never played a down of major college football, and the Huskies figure to arrive in Autzen Stadium at 7 p.m. today as a surprise package wrapped in purple and gold.
“I don’t know really what their defense is going to be like, what their special teams is going to be like,” Bellotti said. “... Any time you have youth combined with new coaching people, you’re sort of hamstrung. On a first-game basis we try to prepare for everything and prepare in a semi-generic mode. This may be somewhat more of that because you’ve got some new coaches along with young players.”
Three true freshmen seem certain to see extensive playing time as tailback Chris Polk and defensive tackle Senio Kelemete are in the starting lineup, and Jordan Polk is listed on the No. 1 kick return team.
A hamstring injury to tight end Michael Gottlieb also could move Kavario Middleton into the starting lineup. And his former Lakes High school teammate, Jermaine Kearse, seems likely to play at wide receiver behind redshirt freshman Alvin Logan. Another redshirt freshman, Quinton Richardson, is listed as a starting cornerback. And the game also might give fans a first look at junior offensive tackle Nick Scott, who transferred over the offseason from Drake.
“Youth does bring some very good things with it,” UW coach Tyrone Willingham said. “They are unscarred. They come into it very fresh, very aggressive, very competitive. So there are some very great things that they bring to the table.”
It might work to the young Huskies’ favor that they weren’t around to see how the Ducks have dominated UW in recent seasons.
Oregon is on a four-game winning streak – matching its longest domination of the series. And none has been close: The Ducks won 31-6 in 2004, 45-21 in 2005, 34-14 in 2006 and 55-34 last season.
In those games, the Washington defense has had no answers for Oregon’s spread offense.
However, key players who did much of the damage for the Ducks – quarterback Dennis Dixon and tailback Jonathan Stewart – are no longer around. And Dixon’s apparent heir to the starting quarterback job – Nate Costa – has been lost for the season due to a knee injury.
That moves sophomore Justin Roper into the second start of his career. The first was impressive, as he led Oregon to a 56-21 win over South Florida in last season’s Sun Bowl.
However, his presence also gives UW a rare advantage in experience at a crucial position.
Washington quarterback Jake Locker said he expects to be near 100 percent after suffering a hamstring strain that cost him 12 practices in the middle of camp. And mentally, he says he feels more comfortable than he did at a comparable time last season when he was preparing for his college debut at Syracuse.
“I didn’t know what to expect last year,” Locker said. “I’d never played at this level. Wasn’t sure what it would be like, what the speed would be like. Now, having played for a year, having that experience and knowledge, I’ll be a little more relaxed going into the game, feel a little more comfortable with what we are doing and what I need to do.”
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808
WASHINGTON (4-9 overall, 2-7 Pac-10 in 2007) AT NO. 21 OREGON (9-4, 5-4)
Kickoff: 7 p.m., Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Ore.
Television: FSN. Radio: 950-AM.
The series: Washington leads, 58-37-5. However, Oregon leads 13-12 in Eugene, and the Ducks have won four in a row in the series, including 55-34 last season in Seattle. Oregon has never won five straight over the Huskies.
What to watch: UW fans could get their first looks at a dozen or more true and redshirt freshmen, including three true freshmen in the starting lineup: tailback Chris Polk, defensive tackle Senio Kelemete and kick-returner Jordan Polk. True freshman Kavario Middleton also could start at tight end, filling in for Michael Gottlieb, who did not travel because of a hamstring injury. ... Fans also will get their first look at the defensive changes installed by new coordinator Ed Donatell. ... In a reversal from most of last season, UW will actually have the more experienced quarterback as Jake Locker makes his 13th career start while Oregon’s Justin Roper makes his second. ... The Ducks have scored 48 points in each of their pervious two home openers.
What’s at stake: It’s opening day, and it’s also the Pacific-10 Conference opener for both teams. And it’s one of the West Coast’s fiercest rivalries. The game will be played in front of the 56th consecutive sellout crowd at Autzen – and a national television audience.
TNT pick: Oregon, 45-28. These young Huskies should be fascinating and fun. But this is a lot of ask of so many inexperienced players.
1Chris Polk, TB, 5-11/200, Freshman
Breakaway threat whose style has been likened to Reggie Bush.
10Jake Locker, QB, 6-3/230, Sophomore
Slowed by hamstring in camp, set goal of 65 percent completion rate for season.
58Juan Garcia, C, 6-3/305, Senior
Caps amazing recovery from foot injury that threatened career.
66Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, DE, 6-4/263, Junior
Conference honors candidate now leader of young defensive line.
93Senio Kelemete, DT, 6-4/295, Freshman
Starting fresh out of high school despite shortened fall camp.
9 LeGarrette Blount, TB, 6-2/240, Junior
Juco transfer brings change-of-pace with powerful running style.
11 Justin Roper, QB, 6-6/204, Sophomore
Second start at QB, first was ’07 Sun Bowl rout of South Florida.
24 Jeremiah Johnson, TB, 5-10/200, Senior
Finally the top back after sharing the spotlight with Jonathan Stewart.
29 Patrick Chung, RV, 6-0/210, Senior
Wears number of fallen teammate Todd Doxey, who drowned in July.
60 Max Unger, C, 6-5/300, Senior
SI preseason All-American will test UW’s young interior line.
Don Ruiz, The News Tribune