The Pac-12 North Division champion Oregon Ducks (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12) are flying south to Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, CA to compete for the conference title for the first time since 2014.
No. 5 Utah will be the most talented defense Oregon has faced this season. Statistically, the Utes (11-1, 8-1) are in the top-five in the nation in almost all defensive categories.
Utah leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense (11.3 points per game), total defense (241.6 yards per game), pass defense (185.3 ypg), rush defense (56.3 ypg) and yards per play against (4.2). During their eight-game winning streak, the Utes outscored opponents 308-76 and held five opponents to single digits.
Utah has the ball for an average of 34:40, ranking top in the conference and third in the nation. While some argue that time of possession isn’t important in college football, the time advantage is working for the Utes defense, who is staying fresh and fierce. The Utes are effective at turning long drives into points and the defense quickly gets the ball back to the offense… a tough combination to beat.
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal does not want to play to Utah’s ball-control strengths.
“I think time of possession is important in any game,” Cristobal said on Monday ahead of the Pac-12 Title game. “Some games obviously roll differently than others. Part of them having so few snaps is they get of the field quickly… Their offense does a great job controlling the line of scrimmage, controlling the clock as they’ve needed, they’ve kind of had their way offensively."
Thankfully, the Ducks also have a strong defense, allowing 15.8 points per game (its lowest since 1966). The Duck defense is also on field a lot more than Utah’s. Oregon’s average time of possession is 28:33, which is 95th in the nation.
“They’ve pushed the ball down the field, they take some shots, they’ve very accurate with their downfield stuff, created explosive plays a number of different ways and that combination is a very difficult combination,” Cristobal said. “So when you enter a game like this, your plan has to be ready to take on those particular aspects because if a team like that has their way and plays to their strengths it makes it a difficult situation.”
Maintaining possession won’t be an easy task for Oregon against the Utes who have allowed an average of just 56.3 yards per game on the ground this season.
The passing game and quarterback Justin Herbert’s ability to air it out will need to be drastically better than the last two games. Against Oregon State and Arizona State, Herbert completed 57.8-percent of his passes and has three touchdowns to two interceptions.
Herbert and an out-of-rhythm Oregon offense have a tall task against a Utes defense that has been unshakeable. However, the Ducks would be in a far better position to win if they can shake it up and exert their own ball-control to test the Utes defense and allow less opportunity for Utah’s offense to put up points.