Ducks face familiar obstacles against Utah
SALT LAKE CITY — That penetrating Utah defense is reminiscent of Stanford’s. Devontae Booker, the Utes’ hard-charging tailback, looks a lot like former Arizona All-America Ka’Deem Carey.
Over the past three seasons, the only teams to beat Oregon are Stanford and Arizona — and No. 20 Utah (6-2, 3-2 Pac-12) has at least a few things in common with both.
The fifth-ranked Ducks (8-1, 5-1) visit Rice-Eccles Stadium tonight to face what might be the biggest obstacle between them and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Oregon, which moved into fourth in the playoff rankings this week, is coming off a dismantling of Stanford at home that was as cathartic as it was impressive.
The Cardinal had beaten the Ducks the previous two seasons, holding quarterback Marcus Mariota and Oregon’s hyper-speed offense mostly in check. Oregon had a tough time turning the corner on Stanford when it ran and protecting Mariota when it passed.
Last week, Oregon had no such problems, taking apart the Cardinal 45-16. Mariota had time and space to operate and the running game did plenty of damage between the tackles with 230-pound freshman Royce Freeman.
Now comes Utah, which leads the nation in sacks at 4.88 per game.
“We’ve played some of the most elite defenses in the country in my opinion with Michigan State and Stanford, Washington, UCLA, and these guys are probably near the top of that list,” Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said.
Utah defensive ends Nate Orchard (13 sacks) and Hunter Dimick (nine sacks) have combined for 21 sacks.
“They have a couple of the best pass rushers in the country,” said Mariota, the nation’s top-rated passer.
Arizona now has a two-game winning streak against Oregon. The Wildcats have done much damage with a spread running game, attacking the heart of the Ducks’ defense. Last season it was Carey going for 206 yards and four scores in a 42-16 victory in Tucson. Carey is gone, but the Wildcats ran for 208 yards in a 31-24 upset last month in Autzen Stadium.
Booker (5-foot-11, 203 pounds), the Pac-12’s second-leading rusher at 124 yards per game, has a similar build and style to Carey (5-10, 207). The Utes also operate from a spread offense, but the comparisons with Arizona end there. The Utes have struggled to find a passing game to complement Booker. Searching for more production through the air after a 19-16 overtime loss at Arizona State, coach Kyle Whittingham opened up the competition between Travis Wilson (more of a passer) and Kendal Thompson (more of a runner) this week.
“If you can’t throw the football, they’re going to load up the box, just like ASU did,” Whittingham said.
Other things to watch for as Oregon visits Rice-Eccles Stadium for the first time since Utah joined the Pac-12:
OREGON’S O-LINE: The blocking problems that hounded the Ducks against Arizona have been almost nonexistent the last four games. The return of Jake Fisher to left tackle helped settle things, but now Oregon will likely be dealing with another injury. Tackle Matt Pierson went down with a knee injury late in the Stanford game. Freshman Tyrell Crosby, who struggled at left tackle when Fisher was out, will fill in on the right side for Pierson.
BRING IT BACK: Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has talked about running the returner gauntlet in the Pac-12, home of some of the most dangerous kick and punt returners in the country. Utah’s Kaelin Clay might be the best of them all. Clay leads the nation in punt returns with a 22.4-yard average, including three touchdowns.
AUTZEN-LIKE: Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium often draws comparisons to the Ducks’ raucous and cozy home in Eugene.
With a listed capacity of 45,017, Rice-Eccles holds about 9,000 less than Autzen, but it gets loud and can make opponents feel claustrophobic.
“The crowd’s going to be an issue, but I like stadiums like that,” Oregon defensive back Erick Dargan said. “You really got to lean on each other and play together to get a win in a tough crowd.”
Rice-Eccles is also 4,657 feet above sea level. Will the Ducks throttle back their hurry up offense to compensate?
DUCKS ROAD: Oregon can clinch the Pac-12 North with a victory. After Utah, the Ducks have an open date, then finish the regular season with a home game against Colorado and a road game at Oregon State. The Pac-12 title game is in Santa Clara, California, on Dec. 5.
UTES CHANCES: Utah still is in the running for a Pac-12 South title, but it will need help in the form of a couple of Arizona State losses.