Another must-win game approaches this Saturday, and our Oregon Ducks football program has a lot of work to do if they’re going to beat the Utes on the road.
Last week, the Ducks bounced back against Washington State, putting up a very comfortable 38 points to the Cougs’ 24. This was more or less to be expected, but it was still great to see Oregon dominating the way they were all those weeks ahead of their home matchup against a familiarly dominant passing attack.
Now, the Ducks meet the Utah Utes for the first time in the 2023 season, who have run all over teams in weeks past. Utah is fresh off an upset over the USC Trojans, which was a game that many of us looked to as USC’s season’s end. Utah’s very much still in the thick of things and could make a run for the PAC-12 Championship or even potentially go beyond to the College Football Playoff. However, they’ve got an unstoppable Oregon offense to handle in their building this Saturday, which will be the perfect stage for the Ducks to force them out of College Football Playoff contention the same way the Utes did to the Trojans.
Here are five keys to victory in order to achieve just that, as well as some milestones that would likely lead to a dominant Duck victory.
5: Force Bryson Barnes to a Pass-Heavy Gameplan
Barnes has played more than well enough in relief of Cam Rising, who was recently shut down for the season. Now the Ducks are facing an offense that’s clicking, making just enough plays to squeak out big victories, and has all the momentum in the college football world. Head coach Dan Lanning has shared his thoughts this week on how Barnes has played thus far, and after “calling game” against USC, it’s clear that Barnes is successfully establishing himself as a starter in his junior season.
Utah is still going to be relying heavily on their run game, though, over Barnes’ arm. If Sione Vaki ends up being Utah’s most effective skill position player again this week, the Utes are in trouble. We saw Ja’Quinden Jackson get 27 total touches a week ago while averaging only 4.3 yards per touch, which is certainly not going to cut it against this Duck defense.
Fortunately, Oregon has been able to contain stars out of the backfield or between the tackles all season long. The front seven is only playing better and better, and the secondary had a solid recuperation of some of that juice they lost against Washington. Expect to see Oregon force the Utes into a situation where they absolutely have to abandon the run game, and start to sputter as the second half wears on.
4: Dominate on Third Down
Utah wasn’t particularly good last week on third down, though being in a hostile environment, it’s understandable why. The Utes will be back at home this weekend, and with a huge crowd at their back, the stands are sure to be rocking with the country’s eighth-ranked squad on their turf.
Now, as we’ve gotten to see in weeks past, Lanning is no stranger to going for it on fourth down. However, he practiced a whole lot more patience and level-headed decision-making against Washington State this weekend. Expect to see a bit more aggression against Utah. As we learned against Washington, Lanning has zero fear about swinging for the fences when it comes to getting aggressive on third and fourth down.
As for the defense, there’s a lot to love about this matchup. Oregon’s allowing a meager 3.3 yards per attempt and has only allowed three rushing touchdowns all season. As the run game is a huge piece of this Utah offense, the emphasis is going to be on containing Jackson as the lead back, which Oregon is more than capable of, and limiting Barnes’ impact with his legs.
3: Bucky Irving Hits 125+ Total Yards
Irving’s having a surge now to be a top back in the country. His elusiveness to be a true homerun hitter in past weeks, combined with the ability to scratch and claw for every first down, has allowed the Ducks to remain in games when they’re really struggling in other areas. Every game now, it seems you’ll see Irving fighting off defenders in the backfield and end up turning it into a 7 or 8-yard gain.
Having said that, this Utah defense is legit. Lanning came out and said that this is the team he respects the most defensively. These Utes are no slouches in space and are going to give this Oregon team every bit of preparation they have to make Nix start hitching throws, and the offense start abandoning the rushing attack led by Irving. Still, if there’s any back that can rip off a few big runs or ice a game with some first downs over this squad, it’s Bucky. Let’s see him have a statement game of his own and neutralize this Utah defense with backbreaking, possession-stealing runs all day long.
2: Troy Franklin Scores in the First Half
After scoring FIVE (!!!) touchdowns in his past three games, Franklin went scoreless against WSU (although he did have a long touchdown called back). As the ignition point of Nix’s rise as a passer, Franklin getting into the endzone Saturday is vital to building the offense’s vertical passing game confidence entering the second half and allowing Nix to start working in players like Tez Johnson and Terance Ferguson over the middle.
Even with the touchdown streak ending, Franklin still led the team in receptions against the Cougs. Let’s see him dominate his return to Salt Lake City early in a thrilling matchup against one of college football’s best defenses.
1: Bo Nix Has His Heisman Performance
If there’s a game to bounce back in and remind the country he’s Heisman-worthy, this is the matchup. Hostile environment, season on the line every week, and an extremely powerful Utah foe has “Statement Game” written all over it. Michael Penix Jr. just had the worst outing of his respective season; Caleb Williams lost his second straight game, and Nix has great momentum to build on from the Washington State game. While it’s not particularly important to the Ducks’ playoff hopes this season, it does impact so much of this team’s confidence. The Ducks rise and fall as Bo does. Let’s see him play at his best in a huge game of this Oregon season and keep them on track for a playoff run.
Anyway, enough from me, Oregon fans. How do you think the Ducks will fair this weekend against Utah? Who’s the X-factor on offense that’s going to make or break this matchup? Are you expecting to see Nix and Franklin dominate per usual, or is this going to be a stingier, low-scoring affair? Let us know in the FishDuck Forum with decorum.
Los Angeles, California
Top Photo By: Eugene Johnson
Alex Heining is an Oregon alumni from the graduate class of 2021. After studying sports business and media studies, he has moved into the field of digital marketing as a copywriter and content manager in the Los Angeles area. Still, he loves his Ducks and goes to local high school games all over the Los Angeles and Orange County area to check out new recruits of the future (and a SoFi game or two with the pros). On any given Saturday, expect to find him doing martial arts, playing the guitar, or screaming at the tv over a missed holding penalty.
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