Long time coming

Michael Dougherty

When Minnesota quarterback Billy Cockerham was asked by a television cameramen how the Sun Bowl compared to other bowls, the senior from Clayton, Calif., paused and stared at the guy as if to say, “Man, where have you been?”
“Well, we haven’t played in any other ones,” he said.
Forgive the locals for still trying to figure out how to act when their college football team plays into December — they’re usually in full basketball mode right now.
While the 12th-ranked Gophers are nibbling on the bowl buffet for the first time since 1986, the Ducks are at it again. Oregon is in its fourth bowl game in the five years Oregon coach Mike Bellotti has been at the helm.
Bellotti, who will turn 49 on Dec. 21, took over at Oregon after former coach Rich Brooks left for the NFL’s Rams after Penn State beat the Ducks in the 1995 Rose Bowl. In his first season, Bellotti and the Ducks went 9-3 and migrated south to the Cotton Bowl, where they lost 38-6 to Colorado.
The Ducks took the ’96 bowl season off after going 6-5, but returned in ’97 with a 41-13 win against Air Force in the Las Vegas Bowl and ’98, a 51-43 loss to Colorado in the Aloha Bowl.
During the Gophers’ 13-year postseason drought, Oregon has been to eight bowl games counting the Sun Bowl. Overall, the Ducks are 4-9 in 13 bowl games; Minnesota is 2-3 in its five games.
Figuring out what makes Oregon tick has been hard so far for the Gophers coaching staff. Coach Glen Mason and most of his staff have spent the better part of the past three weeks hitting the recruiting road hard.
Offensive coordinator Steve Loney has a leg up on the rest of the coaching staff. Loney said he’s been able to watch more film of the Ducks because his recruiting responsibilities are wrapped up.
He said it’s been kind of a struggle getting the team back to where it was when the regular season ended on Nov. 20. Teams are only allowed 15 practices before the bowl game, so the team took two weeks off before resuming practice on Dec. 5.
“Our first practice back it was obvious that there was some rust on the old machine,” Loney said. “But since then, we’ve done some things in practice that has kept the guys sharp because it was obvious the guys had spent some time off.”
Loney said his experience with bowl games has taught him to compose game plans that are consistent with what worked in the regular season.
He compared the Ducks’ defensive schemes to those of Purdue’s, and referred to the “if-it-ain’t-broke don’t-fix-it” philosophy when asked specifically about alterations to the offensive plan.
“I think sometimes, with the extra time, if you try to get too fancy and try to make too many adjustments it can end up costing you,” he said. “You’re looking at an offense that I’m not sure many people know scored more points and created more yards than any team in Minnesota history.”
Loney said Cockerham and running back Thomas Hamner have made the difference on offense. Cockerham said while he isn’t an expert on Oregon specifically, he knows what Pac-10 football is all about.
“My dad coached at Cal-Berkeley, and being from California I’ve been around the Pac-10 and I’ve seen a lot of the teams,” the senior quarterback said. “The Big Ten and the Pac-10 are different conferences, but up and down the line they’re just as athletic as a lot of the teams in the Big Ten.”

Michael Dougherty covers football and basketball and welcomes comments at [email protected]