Oregon reaching a bowl game appeared to be a virtual given not too long ago. Three blowout losses later and the Ducks find their postseason hopes leaning against the ropes with reality rearing back to deliver a knockout blow.
The Ducks will host Utah on Saturday in what should be considered all but a must-win for Oregon, which faces a tough schedule down the stretch.
UO coach Willie Taggart, when asked following his team's 31-14 loss at UCLA on Saturday how important it would be for these young Ducks (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12) to gain the experience that comes with playing in a bowl game, said he couldn't even consider such things at the moment.
“We’re not thinking about bowl right now,” Taggart said. “We need to get another win...If we get another win then we’ll start thinking about those other things. But it’s really, really important now that we find a way to win a ball game.
Failing to reach a bowl game this season should be viewed as a colossal disaster. Despite Oregon going 4-8 last year, plenty of reasons existed to expect the Ducks to win at least six games in 2017. Starting out 4-1 then failing to capture two additional victories over seven remaining contests would certainly be a bad look for Taggart and the program, even when factoring in the loss of sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert (collarbone), who has missed the team's last three games. His return date is unknown.
Surely Oregon should have been expected to scratch out two more wins with anyone at quarterback.
Oregon's margin for error to reach 6-6 and become bowl eligible is virtually zero with Utah visiting Autzen on Saturday. As it stands right now, Oregon has one seemingly very winnable game remaining and that's the Civil War on Nov. 25 at home to close the regular season against Oregon State (1-6, 0-4).
The Ducks also have one seemingly guaranteed loss, with or without Herbert, and that's Nov. 4 at 12 Washington (6-1, 3-1).
If those two games turn out as most of the world would expect them to, the Ducks would need to get a win against either the Utes or surging Arizona on Nov. 11 to reach six victories.
Herbert should return no later than Nov. 11. His injury was said to keep him out 4-to-6 weeks. This Saturday would be the fourth week since the injury occurred Sept. 30 against California. The Arizona game happens seven weeks out. But defeating the Wildcats would be anything but a given even with Herbert and that game looks now like a sure loss if he were not to play.
Arizona sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate has been lighting up the Pac-12 since becoming the Wildcats' starter on Oct. 7. Tate has amassed 694 yards rushing in three starts and 468 passing with 11 total touchdowns. Arizona has won all three of his starts while averaging 46.3 points per game.
He has had the opposite impact on his team that Oregon freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister has had on his since replacing Herbert. The Ducks have scored 31 points in three games with Burmeister at quarterback. Simply math would indicate that UO would have a tough time defeating Arizona and Tate without Herbert.
Even with Herbert, expecting him to out-duel Tate after sitting out seven weeks would be foolish. Herbert could help UO put up numbers but Arizona should be expected to also score a lot of points making the outcome very much in doubt.
Consequently, it's imperative that the Ducks win over Utah in order to ease the pressure of having to take down Tate and Arizona.
Believe it or not, the Ducks have a chance to do so even if Burmeister makes his fourth start. Utah is reeling at the moment having lost three consecutive games. The Utes' offense is a mess, which is exactly what the Ducks need to see. If Utah can be held to under 27 points it is possible that Burmeister makes enough progress to lift the Ducks to a close win.
What Oregon truly needs is for Herbert to make a miraculous recovery and play on Saturday. Either way, the Ducks had better approach this game with a do-or-die mentality.
Oregon vs. Utah
When: 2:45 p.m., Saturday, Autzen Stadium.
T.V.: Pac-12 Networks.
Betting line: Utah minus 3 1/2.
Records: Ducks (4-4, 1-4 Pac-12), Utah (4-3, 1-3).
Last week: Arizona won 45-44 in overtime at California (4-4, 1-4). Oregon lost 31-14 at UCLA (4-3, 2-3).
Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (44-49, 4-4 at Oregon); Utah's Kyle Whittingham (108-53).
Fear factor (five-point scale): 5. Utah has lost three consecutive games to Stanford, at USC and home against ASU. The offense has fallen on hard times while the defense went from allowing 19 points per game through the first four contests to giving up a still solid 27.0.
Oregon, these days, can accommodate such numbers with an offense that has scored 31 points over the last three games. One could very easily see Utah winning this game 24-17.
Preliminary pick (waiting on Herbert news): Oregon 27, Utah 20. Oregon will be home against a mediocre opponent that is struggling on offense. That, and a couple more plays from Burmeister than usual, will be enough to help the Ducks get that all important fifth victory. Then Taggart can start talking about how important it would be for his team to appear in a bowl game.