National Title Implications Add Spice to Fiesta Matchup
Dec. 31, 2001
By BOB BAUM
AP Sports Writer
TEMPE, Ariz. - For the past week, The Associated Press nationalchampionship trophy has been on display at every Fiesta Bowl news conference,tantalizing evidence of the implications of Tuesday's game.
Not only should the matchup of No. 2 Oregon (10-1) and No. 3 Colorado (10-2)be high-scoring and highly entertaining, but the winner could earn a share ofthe national title.
'It feels like a national championship game,' Colorado coach Gary Barnettsaid Monday. 'Everything about it feels that way.'
This was not what the Bowl Championship Series people intended. There issupposed to be only one championship game - No. 1 Miami vs. No. 4 NebraskaThursday in the Rose Bowl.
But the complex system that determines the title matchup left Oregon andColorado feeling unfairly left out. The Rose Bowl winner is guaranteed to bedeclared the national champion by the ESPN-USA Today poll, determined by a voteof coaches.
The AP poll has no such pact, and the sports writers who are eligible tovote could well pick the Oregon-Colorado winner if Nebraska beats Miami.
'We can't play in the Rose Bowl. That's the reality of it,' Oregonquarterback Joey Harrington said. 'But we have a great chance to play againstthe hottest team in the country right now and prove to the rest of the countrythat we should have been there.'
Colorado (10-2) steamrolled into the game with a 62-36 rout of Nebraska,followed a week later by a 39-37 victory over Texas in the Big 12 title game.
Operating behind what could be the best line in college football, theBuffaloes ran over and through two of the top teams in the game with an offensethat features four talented tailbacks.
'Colorado has a great offense,' said Wesly Mallard, the Ducks' aptly-namedlinebacker. 'From the games I've watched on TV, once they get started, they'rerolling. It's just going to be up to us to limit their big plays and their big,long runs.'
No matter the opponent, Oregon's undersized defense plays at least seven oreight players up on the line to stop the run, leaving its cornerbacks to coverone-on-one. Against Colorado, the Ducks plan to emphasize stopping the run evenmore.
That means the Buffaloes will look to move the ball through the air behindquarterback Bobby Pesavento.
'I've said all week long that if we're going to win the game, we're goingto have to be able to throw the football,' Barnett said. 'There's no questionthat the bulk of our practice the past 11 days have been spent throwing thefootball.'
Oregon's defense ranked next-to-last in the Pac-10 in defense, allowing406.5 yards per game, but the Ducks were third in scoring defense, giving up21.8 per contest. Colorado allows 357.2 yards and 23.3 points per game.
'We kind of epitomize the bend-but-don't-break defense,' Oregon coach MikeBellotti said. 'We give up a lot of yards but don't give up a lot of points,and the last time I checked, it's points that beat you.'
Bellotti thinks that with two powerful offenses going against each other,the defense that plays the best could determine the outcome.
Barnett believes it might be turnovers.
'We won the last two games by creating eight or nine turnovers,' Barnettsaid. 'In the two we lost, we turned it over nine times and didn't createany.'
The Ducks, who never have had an 11-win season, have the fewest turnovers incollege football this season at 11 - five interceptions and six fumbles.
Bellotti worries about special team play. Colorado's Roman Hollowell was thetop punt returner in NCAA Division I.
Barnett calls Harrington 'the best quarterback we've faced all year,'partly because of factors that don't show up in the statistics.
'What you have to play against Joey Harrington is the spirit and theleadership,,' Barnett said.
Harrington is 21-3 as a starter. Ten times in his career he has rallied histeam to victory from a fourth-quarter deficit, four of them this season. Hisbiggest comeback was on the same field where he will end his college career onTuesday.
As a junior, he threw for a career-high 434 yards and six touchdowns as theDucks came from 14 points down in the final 3:21 to beat Arizona State indouble overtime, 56-55.
The Ducks also feature a running game that has two 1,000-yard tailbacks.Offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, who will take over as head coach atCalifornia after this game, said Oregon has 'a couple of hundred' offensiveplays and has 97 to 100 pass plays in every game plan.
'Nebraska had a lot of sets, but this team does a lot more with its sets,'Colorado safety Michael Lewis said. 'You may think it's run because of theset, and all of a sudden, it comes out pass.'
Whoever wins at Sun Devil Stadium will have to wait two days for the RoseBowl. If Colorado beats Oregon, the Buffaloes will find themselves in theuncomfortable position of rooting for arch-rival Nebraska.
'It would be tough,,' Colorado linebacker Drew Wahlroos said, 'but Iguess we could do it once.'