Editor’s Note: Fourteen weeks of Pac-12 football drama culminate in our final preview and prediction before the bowl season begins. You’ll also find our writers’ final consensus Power Rankings at the bottom of the page.
By Nicholas Bartlett
#5 Utah (8-1, 11-1) vs. #13 Oregon (8-1, 10-2)
Friday, December 6, 2019
5:00 p.m. PT, ABC
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA
Straight-Up Pick: Utah in a Close Win
Against the Spread: Utah (-6.5)
What the Utes Must Do to Win
This is the moment Utah players and fans have been waiting for since last December; an opportunity to redeem themselves after a heartbreaking title-game loss to Washington. To ensure a better outcome this time, the Utes need to stick to the game plan that has worked so well all year, running the ball methodically, and playing aggressive defense. As an illustration of Utah’s sheer dominance on both sides of the ball, PFF College recently included Tyler Huntley, Zack Moss, Brant Kuithe, and seven Ute defenders on its first-team All-Pac-12 offensive and defensive units.
Of course, Oregon isn’t just another team on Utah’s schedule. The Ducks have the size, talent, and experience to give Kyle Whittingham’s team its severest test since an early-season loss to USC. That’s especially true in the trenches, where Oregon may be able to contain Moss for a while. If so, Utah’s offensive line needs to keep grinding, knowing their star running back becomes more difficult to tackle as the game wears on. Likewise, it may take Huntley a quarter or two to get going, but the senior quarterback’s ability to connect with Kuithe and others while under pressure, and to scramble out of trouble, should lead to breakdowns in Oregon’s defense. In short, Huntley just needs to manage the game as usual and not try to put on a show for the Playoff Committee and NFL scouts, which are sure to pack the press box.
On defense, the Utes need to rely on their front line—one of the nation’s best—led by Bradlee Anae and Leki Fotu. They’re capable of pressuring Oregon signal-caller Justin Herbert into making mistakes, and crippling the bread-and-butter Duck running attack. Utah may benefit from utilizing a tight man-to-man scheme to limit UO wideout touches, and generate coverage sacks. Since suffering a rash of injuries and chemistry-draining position changes, Oregon’s receivers haven’t shown the ability to consistently win one-on-one battles with defensive backs. Wideout Johnny Johnson III has been most reliable in the absence of tight end Jacob Breeland and wideout Mycah Pittman, so he probably merits body-bumping at the line of scrimmage, and double-teaming on key downs.
What the Ducks Must Do to Win
The first question the Ducks need to answer is this: How badly do they want this game? That may sound like a silly question, given what’s at stake, but after two uninspired performances in back-to-back weeks against Arizona State and Oregon State, it raises an important point. Oregon is a different team when it brings the fire, as it did for much of the season, and most recently for three quarters at USC. That’s especially true of the unpredictably hot-and-cold Duck defense. Without that burning desire, Utah could embarrass Oregon the way they have nearly every other team they’ve played, trampolining off the Ducks into the Playoff.
Assuming Oregon plays with passion, they would benefit from the following tactics on defense. First, gang-tackle Moss to the ground on every carry. He’s not the type of running back defenders can arm-tackle or bump. Second, lock down Utah’s receivers, or be prepared to pay the price. That’s especially true of Kuithe. The big-and-fast tight end runs deceptive routes in multiple facets, making him difficult to account for, let alone tackle. Bottom line, Utah’s offense is easier to defend when it’s rendered one-dimensional, but nearly impossible to stop when Huntley completes deep passes as a complement to Moss. The Utes don’t need explosion plays to win, but when they happen, it usually signals a blowout in the making. Oregon’s defensive backs must perform up to their early season standards, and not let receivers get behind them.
On offense, the Ducks need to establish the run early. They should be helped in that cause by the return of starting center Jake Hanson from injury. A strong ground attack would take pressure off senior quarterback Justin Herbert, whose performance will likely depend on Oregon winning the marquee matchup of the game: the Duck O-line versus the Ute D-line. In particular, Herbert needs to be more accurate than he has been in the past two contests. When he’s confident and on-target, the Ducks are as explosive on offense as any team in the country, especially when running backs CJ Verdell and Travis Dye are in rhythm. Oregon must limit scoreless drives and avoid turnovers to keep pace with the Utes.
What Happens on the Field
Following a stellar season in which Huntley’s phenomenal passer ratings were largely overlooked, the senior quarterback will finally get his shining moment on the national stage. Expect Utah’s signal caller to throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns, with coach Whittingham opening up the playbook. As always, Moss will prove a steady hand, battering Oregon defenders in his path. Kuithe will make timely plays in key moments. His consistency will open up space for other Utes receivers as well. On the other side of the ball, Herbert will have a solid outing, but won’t make enough plays to direct the Ducks to a win. Last week he threw for just 147 yards and one touchdown, and he’ll get off to another slow start, putting the Ducks behind from the jump. Utah’s biggest challenge has been stopping elite wideouts, and the Ducks won’t help them there with their inability to stretch the Utes over the top. Utah will win this game by seven points in a close back-and-forth contest.
Notes: Oregon leads the all-time series 22-10, but Utah won last year’s matchup 32-25. The Ducks are 2-0 in Pac-12 Championship games as they enter their third. This is the Utes second consecutive trip to the conference title game, having lost last year’s matchup to Washington 10-3. Oregon has won 13 out of their last 15 contests. Utah enters this matchup on an eight-game win streak. The Utes have won 11 games in a season for the first time since 2008. Oregon has reached 10 wins for the 11th time in school history. Utah has scored 30 or more points 10 times this season, its most since 2008. Herbert set a UO career record for completions with 799, and his 10,210 passing yards and 94 touchdown passes are second on the school’s list behind Marcus Mariota. Huntley is second in the FBS in completion percentage (.755) and fifth in passing efficiency (188.6), and remains one of just five FBS quarterbacks with two or fewer interceptions. The Ducks are 25-8 in Herbert’s 33 starts. Huntley is 23-8 all-time as Utah’s starting quarterback.
Final Power Rankings
This story was originally published at sportspac12.com. Syndicated with permission.