Friday’s battle between No. 13 Oregon (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) and No. 5 Utah (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) for the Pac-12 Conference crown is bound to be intense with major post-season implications.
The Ducks still have a chance at playing in the Rose Bowl as Pac-12 Conference champions (among another option). Standing in their way? The Utes, packed with experienced offensive weapons, one of the toughest defenses in the nation and imminent College Football Playoff dreams.
AN OREGON WIN WOULD…
· Tie Oregon with Stanford for most Pac-12 Championship Game victories (3).
· Clinch the program's eighth appearance in the Rose Bowl.
· Give Oregon seven seasons with 11 or more wins (first time since 2014).
A UTAH WIN WOULD…
· Be Utah’s first conference championship.
· Extend its winning streak to nine games, their longest winning streak since 2008 when Utah went undefeated (13-0).
· Keep its college football playoff hopes alive.
THREE KEYS TO AN OREGON VICTORY
Oregon can hang with anyone when they put it all together but how can they defeat a Utes team looking for a statement win to display to the College Football Playoff rankings committee?
1. Shake up Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley
Dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huntley is dangerous and experienced. The senior is crazy efficient (has completed 75.5% of his passes, which is second behind LSU’s Joe Burrow) averaging 11.1 passing yards per completion, a Pac-12 best and third in the FBS.
Huntley and Burrow are the only two quarterbacks who have thrown under 70 percent in two or less games. They are also the only quarterbacks that have thrown for 80 percent or higher in four games this season.
The Heisman-Trophy candidate also has 74 carries for 255 yards and five rushing touchdowns.
“Huntley runs that offense like he’s been there for four years because he has been. We’re looking forward to playing against them,” senior linebacker Troy Dye said.
Oregon must disrupt Huntley and the ball-controlling Utes. The Duck defense has been mostly dependable this season, allowing 10 points or fewer in seven of 10 games. The Ducks have recorded a conference-best 35 sacks and will need to continue to play to that strength.
Look for starting defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux to have a major impact. The freshman has heated up in the last four games, totaling eight tackles for loss and four sacks. Coming off a two tackles for loss, one sack performance, Thibodeaux matched a program freshman record with 6.5 sacks on the season, tying Troy Dye’s 2016 total. Entering this season, Thibodeaux’s goal was 10 sacks: an accomplishment still in reach.
2. Win the turnover battle
The rainy, windy conditions in a clash between the most physical teams in the conference could lead to some mistakes and sloppy play. Oregon must be on the winning end of the turnover battle to contend against Utah. The Ducks practiced with a wet ball this week and aren’t overly concerned with “mother nature”. Some numbers to consider:
- Keep Utah’s defense out of the end zone- The Utes defense has five touchdowns this season, ranking second in the FBS.
- Oregon ranks first (17) and Utah (13) ranks second in interceptions.
- Utah is 10th in FBS in turnover margin (0.83).
- Oregon has scored 113 points off turnovers compared to opponents' 27 points off turnovers.
- This season against Pac-12 teams, Oregon is undefeated when winning the turnover battle (4-0).
3. Passing game success
Utah is known for its defense, which is giving up a conference-best 11.3 points (third in the nation) and 56.3 yards rushing (first in the nation) on average. Opponents haven’t found an answer to the Utes rushing defense that is allowing an average of 2.26 yards per carry. The Utes have held 11 of their 12 opponents to under 100 yards rushing.
So likely, the Ducks will have to get it done through the passing game.
This is considerable reason for concern regarding Oregon’s offense, which has struggled in the last two games. After quarterback Jusin Herbert threw two interceptions against Arizona State, the Ducks totaled their lowest yardage of the season against Oregon State. Oregon’s receivers have lacked separation and Herbert has had some errant throws.
[READ: Justin Herbert's heart is Oregon's X-factor to win Pac-12 Title]
The Ducks will need junior wide receiver Johnny Johnson III to maintain his dependability in his strong season finish. In the last three games, he has 18 catches for 335 yards and four touchdowns. 34 of the junior’s 49 receptions have gone for first downs and he has three-straight games with a touchdown catch.
How and where to watch
Time: Friday, Dec. 6, 5:14 p.m. (PT)
Where: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California
Radio: KUGN-AM (590), KUJZ-FM (95.3), KZEL-FM (96.1)