The last time the Oregon Ducks went into Rice Eccles Stadium and came away with a win, it was on a game winning touchdown pass from a hometown kid nobody knew named Justin Herbert. Upsetting the #12 Utes at home would be one of the few bright spots in a 4-8 season for the Ducks.
This year, the contest is between a pair of top 15 teams, each with one loss, and each with a solid path to a conference title, and perhaps even a playoff berth. Each team is off to a new conference after the season as #8 Oregon heads to the Big10 and #13 Utah to the Big12, making this the final regular season showdown between the 2 teams that have consistently been at the top of the soon-to-be-former Pac 12.
There is a lot riding on a game that brings ESPN’s College Gameday to town. Here are the top 5 things to watch:
1. Can the Ducks get it done on the road?
Early in the season, the Ducks got more fight than they wanted from Texas Tech when they went down to Lubbock. Chalk it up to first road game jitters, a new offensive coordinator, or just the hostile environment, but a lot of folks breathed a big sigh of relief when a potential comeback drive was stopped dead by a pick-6 from LB Jeffrey Bassa (which also allowed the Ducks to cover the spread).
Against a wildly overmatched Stanford squad, the Ducks ended the first quarter in a 3-3 tie that gave some viewers flashbacks to past stumbles in Palo Alto. The 42-6 final score more than made up for the sleepy start, but Stanford had only one win at the time.
Two weeks ago in Seattle, Oregon looked like the better team on the field, but a couple failed 4th down conversions would be the main talking points after they failed to close out the game and allowed the Huskies a game winning TD.
Dan Lanning needs to have his team firing on all cylinders from the opening kick if he wants to head home to Eugene with the win.
2. What does Utah do on offense?
At the start of the season, Utah QB Cam Rising was a big part of the discussion as to why the Pac 12 had the best quarterback depth across the conference. An injury in last year’s bowl game kept him out of camp, but the hope was always that he would come back and take the reins this season.
Without Rising, the Ute passing game has struggled. They sit 116th in passing offense averaging 161.7 yards a game as Junior Bryson Barnes and Freshman Nate Jackson have combined for less than 1200 yards this season.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham announced that they have shut down Cam Rising for the season, to the Utes will have to continue to lean on their run game and tough defense.
3. Which defense steps up?
As much as Utah has struggled offensively this season, their defense has been fantastic. Despite the loss of starters to the NFL and a slew of injuries, Whittingham has done a masterful job of getting the most out of his players. Utah boasts the 14th best defense in college football allowing just 295.4 yards a game. They are especially potent against the run, giving up an average of 78 yards to their opponents.
On Saturday they will face by far their toughest challenge as the #2 offense in the nation comes to Salt Lake City. Led by Heisman candidate Bo Nix in his 5th year as a starter, and with a devastating 1-2 punch in the ground game with Bucky Irving and Jordan James, the Ducks are largely imposing their will with 551.6 yards a game. And it won’t do teams any good to sell out to stop one part of the attack as the pass and run games rank #8 and #6 in the country respectively.
Oregon is not slacking off on defense either. Their 20th ranked defense is allowing on 312 yards a game, and only 95 on the ground. Dan Lanning’s defensive brilliance is really showing in the uptick in production in his second year leading the Ducks.
Both teams have shown to be opportunistic in taking the ball away from their opponents. Utah is +7 in turnover margin and the Ducks are +6. This game may well be decided by stops and takeaways by these 2 squads.
4. Who wins the line of scrimmage?
While the focus will certainly be on whether Utah can slow down this rushing attack, both teams have been winning the line of scrimmage all season. Both teams have sacked opposing QBs 25 times, while the Ducks have allowed only 4 sacks against the Utes 13 allowed. Utah has 50 tackles for loss to Oregon’s 44.
Penalties, especially by the offensive line, have stalled several drives for the Ducks. Cleaning those up continues to be a focus as the season progresses. That wont be made any easier when facing Ute DE Jonah Elliss. Elliss already has 10 sacks, so containing him will be a big focus for the Duck offensive line.
5. Dan Lanning vs Kyle Whittingham
As one coach passes the halfway point of his second season as a head coach, the other has been a mainstay since 2005. Dan Lanning is one of the youngest in the country and is credited with being a defensive guru after leading that unit to a National Championship at Georgia. His much-improved defense this year is a big part of the reason the Ducks are in the hunt for a playoff spot.
On the offensive side of the ball, Lanning has shown himself to be unapologetically aggressive, particularly on 4th down. While that fact may have bitten them in the Washington game, Duck fans remember the Chip Kelly attitude of “4th down, so what?” that was a big part of the rise to prominence for the program in the early 2010s. Also, the Ducks lost Nix to an ankle injury last year than many think cost them a title shot. This year, there have been far fewer of the QB runs that were a huge factor in last year’s success. Do they cut Bo loose against Utah?
Meanwhile Kyle Whittingham is quietly doing what he has always done best. Delivering outstanding defensive performances while getting his players to rise to every occasion. In a season that could have easily been spoiled by injuries, the Utes have gone to war for their coach. Last week’s comeback win against USC (in the Coliseum no less) proves that this team has the grit to take on any team.
Preseason pundits pointed to this as a likely pivotal matchup during the season, and it is shaping up to be exactly that. The Oregon Ducks and the Utah Utes will vie for supremacy in a contest that could shape their respective playoff and conference title hopes. The outcome of these five key factors will determine who emerges victorious.