Why Oregon Has the Edge Over Utah

Joshua Whitted Editorials

The good news is the Oregon Ducks are three wins away from making their first trip to the College Football Playoff since 2014. The bad news is they’ll likely have to beat their biggest challenger for the conference crown — Utah — two times in three weeks.

The Utes are one of the hottest teams in college football, winning six of their last seven games, while averaging 38 points per game during that stretch. Salt Lake City is never an easy place to play, but it’s even harder to escape with a victory when the home team fields an explosive offense that is among the best in the country and a coach as seasoned as Kyle Whittingham.

Although Oregon is currently ranked much higher than Utah, this is a game between two teams that are pretty evenly matched. Ever since Cameron Rising took over at quarterback, the Utes have been playing at a top-15 level. That’s why it wasn’t shocking to see Utah actually open as a three-point favorite.

Rest easy, though, Oregon fans. As well as the Utes have played recently, they aren’t without flaws. So far, they’ve managed to succeed, largely due to the fact that none of their recent opponents have had the right roster makeup or play style to expose their weaknesses.

Unfortunately for them, Oregon has both.

The Ducks are perfectly built to attack Utah’s vulnerabilities on each side of the ball. Their elite, creative rushing offense and physical, attacking front seven will force Utah into uncomfortable situations. And unless Whittingham and company are able to make wholesale changes within a few days, Oregon will emerge victorious Saturday night.

Oregon Will Run Over Utah

Oregon’s rushing offense is the perfect combination of clever scheming and elite talent. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is among the best in the game at crafting a diverse, option-heavy running game — one that keeps defenses guessing at all times and isolates defenders to put them in a bind.

Oregon’s running game is one of the best in college football.

One of the main reasons Oregon’s running game is now ranked 10th in the country, averaging 227 yards per game, is because Moorhead attacks defenses from so many different directions, with so many different ball-carriers. On one play, Anthony Brown is running up the middle on a called quarterback run. The next, Travis Dye is running free past an unblocked defender on an inside zone read. And then finally, both Dye and Brown are on the perimeter, flying to the sidelines on a speed option pitch.

Moorhead throws so much at defenses that it’s almost impossible to defend Oregon’s rushing attack for four quarters without making a couple of mistakes. But even when the defenders diagnose plays correctly, they have to win one-on-one battles against the best offensive line in the Pac-12 and make open-field tackles against an athletic, slippery running back tandem.

In years past, this wouldn’t be much of a concern for the Utes. Whittingham and defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley have prided themselves on recruiting and developing strong, lane-clogging defensive linemen for as long as they’ve been in business. Utah has had a top-15 rushing defense in each of the past three seasons, and it’s typically a foregone conclusion that teams have to throw the ball to win against the Utes.

Whittingham typically has strong run defenses.

But that’s not the case this year. Whether it’s due to poor talent evaluation, player development or simply missing on top recruiting targets, Utah’s defensive linemen aren’t the dominating, imposing forces they usually are. In Utah’s front seven, only linebacker Devin Lloyd has the playmaking ability and disruptiveness to consistently make stops in the backfield. When he gets schemed out of the play, the rest of the defensive front is decidedly average.

The Utes currently rank 56th in rushing defense, which would be its lowest ranking in over a decade if it holds. Utah no longer has the luxury of disregarding opponents’ running games and forcing them to into obvious passing situations. No team in the conference is better-equipped to take advantage of a leaky run defense than the Ducks. Oregon’s running backs and offensive line are a good deal better than the Utah front seven right now, and Moorhead’s scheming will create plenty of open running lanes.

Utah — and everybody else — knows Oregon wants to run the ball, and it’ll likely do everything in its power to slow the Ducks down. But for the first time in a long time, the Utes just don’t have the horses in the stable to do it. If Oregon’s running game gets rolling, it could be a long night for the home team.

Oregon Will Force Utah to Throw

On the flipside, Utah’s running game has been equally impressive. The Utes implement a more straightforward approach than the Ducks, utilizing traditional zone blocking schemes and relying on an ultra-talented running back duo to create explosive runs, but the result has been just as good. The Utes rank slightly behind Oregon at 17th in the country, averaging 215 rushing yards per game. But they actually out-rank the Ducks, averaging 5.88 yards per carry — a figure that ranks fourth in all of college football.

TJ Pledger (No. 5) is one of the top running backs in the Pac-12.

Rising has earned his share of praise for leading Utah’s offensive surge, but there’s no question that the running game has actually been the biggest revelation for the Utes. Very few opponents have been able to handle their potent ground game, and that has enabled Rising to play, efficient, mistake-free, conservative football.

Oregon will not be so charitable.
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Oregon’s front seven, led by Noah Sewell, is aggressive and physical, crashing downhill with decisiveness, dictating the line of scrimmage. The Ducks currently have the top-ranked rushing defense in the Pac-12, with a number of standout performances against some of the best ground attacks in the country, including holding UCLA and Ohio State to well below their yearly averages in both rushing yards and yards per carry.

Sewell leads Oregon’s Pac-12-leading run defense.

The last time Utah faced a rushing defense as good as Oregon’s was in Week 3 against San Diego State. In that game, the Aztecs held the Utes to just 70 yards and 2.3 yards per carry. Utah’s rushing offense is really good, but it’s fair to question whether some of its gaudy stats are a product of playing some mediocre defenses.

Oregon is well-equipped, at the very least, to slow down Utah’s ground game. The Utes won’t be able to sit on their hands and protect their young quarterback. For the first time since becoming the starter, Rising is facing a defense that he will have to be aggressive against in order to win.

With a defense that features a raging Kayvon Thibodeaux and a ball-hawking Verone McKinley III, the Ducks are not the team that Utah wants to spread its offensive wings against. But with a contained running game, the Utes will have no choice but to air it out and expose a very inexperienced passer.

Overall, Utah is once again one of the most overachieving teams in the country, due to outstanding coaching and — for the most part — excellent player development. Kyle Whittingham is one of the best coaches in America, and this might be his most impressive job yet.

But this year’s Utes do have a number of flaws that the Ducks just so happen to be perfectly suited to take advantage of. It’s never easy playing against such a well-prepared team in a raucous environment, but it doesn’t look like Oregon’s miracle season will be coming to an end just yet.

Joshua Whitted 
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Craig Strobeck

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