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Oregon Game Preview: Utah Altitude Sickness

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Ducks face stiff defensive test in Utah as season draws to a close

Utah could be a major buzzkill to the Ducks, but Oregon will not overlook the contest even with their biggest rival licking their chops in anticipation for the final weekend of the college football regular season. The November 19 clash at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Utah could be a marque matchup with a plate of revenge looking to be served by the Ducks.

2015 SUMMARY:

Last season, the Utes messed around and almost won the Pac-12 South title. Finishing at 6-3 in conference and 10-3 overall was welcomed in Salt Lake City, but the second place finish left a bad taste with some Utes’ fans. In fact, at one point Utah was in control of their own destiny at 6-0, but a 42-24 loss to Southern Cal derailed their championship hopes.

The Utes boasted the best defense in the conference and one of the best overall units in college football last season. The electric defense allowed just 290 total points (22.3 PPG) for 2016, finishing first in the Pac-12. Head coach Kyle Whittingham will never hide from his defensive background, which solidifies the way Utah attacks recruiting each offseason.

Entering the LA Memorial Coliseum for their seventh contest of the year, Utah was unbeaten and in unchartered territory. After their loss to the Trojans, Utah dropped three of their final six games which would dull hope heading into the spring. Yet, hope could be restored this season with a strong defensive effort, alongside an improving offense and budding star at running back.

KEY FACTOR:

Quarterback Travis Wilson was solid last season, but he left the door open for a new signal caller to surpass his achievements in college. The Utes have the fortunate position of possessing three solid quarterbacks. The lone problem will be discovering who is the best for their overall team success. Do they look to now or the future?

Utah v Oregon
Travis Wilson and company delivered a message to the Ducks in 2015 when they defeated Oregon by 42 points at home in Eugene.
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

UPDATE: Former Washington Huskie Troy Williams transferred from junior college last year and was assumed to be the head-on favorite entering spring practice. However, the new starter earned it this summer. The coaching staff and his teammates believe in him so much already, they named him team captain.

Brandon Cox was not going to sit back quietly and watch his job get handed over to a transfer, though that is exactly what happened. The two vets welcome freshman Tyler Huntley to the mix, who is sure to shake things up entering September should Williams falter at any point.

If Williams stays healthy this season, watch out. This unit is loaded with talent at all levels and positions, including their offensive skill players. Troy Williams will have a major role in controlling the amount of time his top-ranked defense is on the field. Utah’s success is measured by the dominance their defense exhibits every Saturday; their quarterback just needs to worry about ball security.

NEW COWBOY IN TOWN:

Joe Williams may have been the most talented running back on the Utes roster last season. That is saying a ton, considering the starter entering the season was the supremely talented Devontae Booker. The Utah starter rushed for 1,261 total yards in just 10 games before a knee injury ended his season prematurely.

Taking over for Booker in his final three games of the 2015 season, Williams rushed for 399 yards and was impressing everyone who tuned into a Utah football game. If Williams can stay upright, the Utes running game may stand to improve in 2016.

WHEN UTAH IS ON DEFENSE:

One of the best defensive units in college football and the No. 1 ranked defense in the Pac-12 is looking to evolve. Regardless of the hiring of new defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, the Utes are looking to remain fast and ferocious as they swarm the ball.

Utah’s secretary of defense is Lowell Lotulelei who was 1st Team All-Pac-12 last season. After allowing the lowest yards rushing per game (108.6) in the conference in 2015, Utah may find difficulty improving. Yet, Cody Barton, Sunia Tauteoli and transfer David Luafatasaga may have something to say about their defensive stoutness.

The most impressive aspect of the Utes defense in 2015 was their extremely deep secondary. Following a 2014 campaign that saw the Utes intercept just three passes all year, Utah registered 22 interceptions last season. Not to mention, free safety Marcus Williams was named to the All-Pac-12 First Team alongside his linebacker teammate.

WHO TO WATCH:

If you are not excited about watching running back Joe Williams on a regular basis, then you probably have never seen him play. He will be the do-it-all back the Utes are desperately craving after the loss of Booker from the program to the Denver Broncos.

Colorado v Utah
Joe Williams is not only looking to make a name for himself in the starting role, but he is determined to erase Devontae Booker’s name from Utah fans’ memories.
Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

In total last season, Williams rushed the ball 104 times for 477 yards and three touchdowns. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry in limited action, while Booker ran for 4.7 yards per touch in the lion-share role and is now headed for a pro football career. Williams also has solid hands, grabbing 11 balls for 84 yards. The sky is the limit should the young stud produce at the same rate as last year.

PREDICTION:

The Ducks are not losing many games in my book this season. However, this is one of the few challenges in 2016 that will witness the Ducks faltering. This is a buzzsaw game for Oregon, who will be heading into Salt Lake City with revenge on the mind.

In 2015, the Ducks were utterly embarrassed by the Utes at the friendly confines of Autzen Stadium, 62-20. There is no way Oregon enters Utah with the same mentality as last season, but Utah is being overlooked once again. Not to mention the importance Utah has forsaken on its high-altitude home advantage.

Oregon will shoot out to an early lead, but as it often occurs, revenge will get the best of the beholder as the Ducks defense will let them down late. Joe Williams will have a 150-yard rushing day, alongside three depilating scores against the Duck front seven. In a strange twist though, Utah will be the only team all season to stifle Heisman candidate Royce Freeman, holding him under 100 yards rushing.

With the hope that I am wrong, Oregon will lose a nailbiter late to Utah, 31-30. Nevertheless, the Ducks will score one of the highest totals on the Utes defense in 2016. Whether it is Prukop or Jonsen under center for Eugene’s finest, one will throw for two touchdowns and run for a third against the brilliant Utah secondary.