Ever since Cal came into Husky Stadium and braved a thunderstorm to beat the Dawgs in the middle of the night, Oregon and Utah have appeared to be on a collision course in the Pac-12 Title game. The inevitable will come to pass at a stadium few can get to and at a time few can watch. Thanks Larry Scott! Scheduling difficulties aside, fans can enjoy the fact that the two best teams in the conference who are fairly evenly matched will square off with a spot in the CFP still a realistic possibility for the Utes.
Oregon vs. Utah, Friday @ Santa Clara, Utah -6.5
Last year, the Utes won the Pac-12 South and went to the conference title game and failed to reach the end zone against UW. This season has been about redemption for a team that returned most of their critical skill position players. They already had a world-class defense, so redemption would not come in the form of having the #3 scoring defense in the country (which they do). It would have to be marked improvement on the offensive side. That improvement has come in the form of a great leap forward by Tyler Huntley. The formerly erratic dual-threat QB has become one of the most efficient passers in the country. His completion percentage jumped from 64% to 76%, his Y/A from 7.6 to 11.1, and his INTs dropped from 6 to 2. He has run less often, but remains a threat with 255 yards and 5 TDs. Add Huntley’s improvement to Zack Moss’s 6.2 Y/C and an array of pass catches with different strengths, and you have an offense that ranks 18th in scoring in the country.
Of course, the Ducks have some offensive flash themselves. Justin Herbert gets the headlines as the high-end pro prospect, but the running game has been the foundation of their attack. CJ Verdell and Travis Dye average 5.9 and 6.3 Y/C respectively with over 100 carries apiece. Those two bring the ball down the field and battering ram Cyrus Habibi-Likio punches it in the end zone (10 TDs). The Ducks had a paucity of receiving options when Mycah Pittman and Jacob Breeland on the shelf, but they have settled into a rhythm with Juwan and Johnny Johnson on the outside and Jaylen Redd in the slot. When they strike a balance, they can score with anyone in the country. Likewise, their bend-but-don’t-break defense has been one of the best in the country, even though UW, WSU, and ASU have shown some cracks in that unit in the second half of the year.
Given the relative strengths of each team on both sides of the ball, the game will come down to smaller differences in the specific match-ups. Oregon’s offense has been at its best this year when they are able to establish the run and pass into open spaces once the defense comes closer to the line to stop Dye and Verdell. Utah has one of the best rush defenses in the country; they give up 2.3 Y/C. Led by Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu, the defensive line gets into the backfield constantly, which disrupts the run game and forces the QB to make quick decisions. When Oregon hasn’t been able to get ahead of the chains with the run, Herbert has been less efficient and more mistake-prone. Utah is perfectly built to force him into difficult situations.
Oregon’s defense has also been very successful this year. The games against UW, WSU, and ASU where they have looked more vulnerable have featured opponents who found success in the deep and intermediate pass game. Utah will always start with the ground game, but Huntley’s development and the deep threats posed by Bryan Thompson and Samson Nacua give the Utes the ability to exploit that part of the Duck defense at times. Both defenses are good enough that it’s hard to envision a shoot-out. The game will come down to who can make the few big plays and avoid major mistakes. Given the particular strengths on each side of the ball, I think Utah is in a better spot to do so.
Utah 28 – Oregon 20
Last Week ATS: 4-2 (1-0 High Confidence)
Season ATS: 45-43 (7-6 HC)
Last Week SU: 6-0
Season SU: 64-25