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Oregon Ducks vs. Utah Utes: Conference opener preview

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After yet another week of uncertainty, Oregon opens conference play against a stout Utah team, seeking revenge for last years bizarre game.

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Three weeks into the season, and we still have, primarily, the same questions about this Oregon team that we had leaving fall camp: the secondary – expected to take its lumps due to inexperience – has been as advertised, with flashed of brilliance, due to sheer talent, interrupted by fits of missed tackling and blown assignments.

The quarterback situation has been almost exactly what we thought, and it’s shockingly similar to that of the secondary – Adams has had moments that make your jaw drop at his skill-set, offset by forehead slapping decisions (see: MSU) that have put the team in danger.

Luckily for the Ducks, both of these situations figure to be rectified by the one thing they can’t control, but know is coming: experience.

With more reps, Adams’ talents will overtake his mistakes. Right?

The secondary will gain traction, and the game will slow down for the youngsters. Correct?

If both of these could happen, say, Saturday, Oregon figures to be in a much better position going forward. Because like or not, the competition, week-in and week-out, is being ratcheted up, starting with perhaps the peskiest team in the conference, Utah.

Kyle Wittingham’s team may have lost some talent up-front defensively, and are frighteningly inconsistent at quarterback (sound familiar?), but they’re still the Utes – the same program that, had a certain someone held onto the ball last year – had Oregon dead-to-rights in their upset bid. They’re the type of nasty, take-no-prisoners, chip on shoulder team that could be Oregon’s kryptonite. Because the Ducks, despite being 2-1 and ranked 12th in the country, are surrounded by clouds of uncertainty, a championship-caliber team protected by a thin sheet of cellophane.

There’s a general feeling that if they don’t put together a good game on both sides of the ball, the rest of the season could be a roller coaster.

With the loss to Michigan State, every week is the season for a team hell-bent on returning to the playoffs.

With that, here’s three things to watch for under the lights tomorrow night, at what should be a raucous Autzen stadium.

  1. Running game – on both sides. If the Utes are going to pull it off, there’s no hidden formula: they’re going to give the ball to Devontae Booker, and get out of his way. This figures to play in Oregon’s favor; if there’s been one point of pride on the defense this season, it’s been their ability to plug holes up front, and not let teams get momentum on the ground. There were a few plays against Michigan State that got away from them, and a few missed tackles last week, but overall, Oregon has been fairly decent against the run. And make no mistake – despite their talent up-front, Utah is no Michigan State.

    The Ducks, on the other hand, have boatloads of talent at the running back position – but for the most part, something has been slightly off. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but an offensive line that is breaking in a few new starters is a good place to look. They struggled with the Spartans, and figure to have their hands full Saturday as well. But Oregon will only go as far this season as their running game takes them. Finding success against the Utes could be the momentum builder they’ve been needing.

  2. Devon Allen, Taj Griffin and the rest of Oregon’s speedsters. All off-season we heard of Oregon’s nearly unmatched speed: across the board, this team simply has players that are too fast for their opponents. Whether it’s been Oregon themselves, or the matchups, or a combination of both, that speed has yet to truly show up. It’s come in flashes – but Oregon’s scoring has been more reliant on sustained drives, rather than bursts of speed. Part of that can be blamed on injury – Devon Allen is just now healthy – and inconsistency (two of their fastest players, Taj Griffin and Tony Brooks-James are freshmen), but the incubator period for them is over. TBJ and Griffin have received plenty of carries during the first three games, and Allen has declared himself 100%. Utah is physical, but cannot hang with Oregon’s speed on the outside.

  3. Is Aidan Schneider the real deal? It hasn’t been getting much attention – mainly, because when he’s been in, it’s a result of Oregon’s offense (gasp!) failing to score a touchdown – but it appears Oregon, for the first time in forever, has a real kicker on the roster (2011 and 2012 are calling, ready for a do-over). If Schneider – 6/6 on the season, and 18/19 in his career – can maintain his consistency, then Oregon has added to an already loaded arsenal of offensive toys. Yes, their devil-may-care attitude has been a calling card, but for Oregon to take the next step, should other problem areas round into form, they need to be able to kick a field goal when it matters. Schneider is apparently unfazed by pressure – last year’s game at Utah was a good example – and he could be called upon Saturday if the Utes stout defense keeps Oregon at bay.

Prediction

For the first time in years, seemingly, there’s no real consensus on Oregon. You can’t deny their talent, which, top-to-bottom, appears to be as fruitful as ever. Yet, something feels off. After losing a Heisman trophy winning quarterback, some slip into reality is expected. And Oregon’s performance at Michigan State, easily one of the top teams in the country, should be looked at as a sign of a very high ceiling…but it says something that their best performance has been in a loss, sandwiched by two uninspiring victories.

As absurd as it may be, expectations – built by their own success – is that Oregon needs to roll, weekly, until faced with an opponent of equal value. Utah, despite their reputation, is still not qualified in that role. If Oregon has dreams of playoff crashing, this is the type of game they need, to send a statement.

No more excuses. Utah is not an FCS school that can be blamed on sleep-walking. They’re not a spread attack video game, where giving up 40 points is viewed as normal. This is a top-20 team that has Oregon’s attention, and should demand their best effort.

And because of that, I think this is the week that things turn around.

Oregon, aware of the narrative surrounding them, makes a statement, 45-24.