It was a mid-September Saturday in 2009 the last time the Utes visited Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon. At the time, they possessed the longest active winning streak in the country – 16 games extending back to Dec. 20 2007, including an undefeated season where they beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. It was Chip Kelly’s first season as head coach of the unranked Ducks and he had something to prove against the #18 Utes. The pivotal point in the game came right before the end of the first half when Utah running back Matt Asiata tried four times to pound the ball into the end zone from the 2 yard line and was denied. That failure ultimately cost Utah the game as they ended up losing by a touchdown. Whittingham and crew were riding high on their winning streak, but since that tragic day they have experienced 23 losses. Needless to say, the Utes will be fired up and ready for vengeance this Saturday. With Oregon’s key injuries, Utah’s prolific defense, and a healthy and rebounding offense, the Ducks should be intimidated for this weekend’s contest.
It was clear to everyone watching the Stanford game that Marcus Mariota’s knee was bothering him even before two Cardinal lineman fell on it. With a sprained MCL, the dynamic quarterback (and second leading rusher on the team) was forced to pass more which caused his play to be predictable and allowed Stanford to get into the backfield, get some sacks, and cause some fumbles. This is very encouraging if you are a Utah fan because the physical Utes are currently ranked second in the country in sacks and second in the Pac12 in fumble recoveries. The Utes will likely replicate Stanford’s efforts against the injured quarterback and cause significant disruption in the backfield. With Mariota getting sacked when he tries to pass and his inability to run the ball himself, look to see him hand it off more.
As De’Anthony Thomas is still a bit rusty coming off an ankle injury, the obvious handoff will be to Byron Marshall. After watching film on Marshall it becomes clear that he’s not much of a smash-mouth, between the tackles, type of running back. He is going to try to use his speed to break containment and beat the Utes on the perimeter. Luckily for Utah, two of the best players on the defense (Trevor Reilly and Nate Orchard) currently occupy both ends of the field. Trevor Reilly is currently ranked #1 in the Pac12 and #6 in the country in tackles for loss while Nate Orchard was just praised by Coach Whittingham in his weekly press conference as being a complete player. Between the two of them the perimeter should be considered in good hands.
On the other hand, if Mariota is able to get a pass off, the only two players with significant receptions this season for the Ducks are Josh Huff and Bralon Addison. The former is injury ridden, having left the game against Stanford with concussion type symptoms. On top of limited options at receiver for Oregon, the Utes are currently ranked #1 in the Pac12 in pass breakups. This secondary, early on considered soft, is easily the most improved unit on the team and is becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Offensively, the Utes look to be in a slump. However, when evaluating Utah’s offense, you must consider that their recent ineptitude has come at the hands of the #1 and #2 total defenses in the Pac12 (Arizona State and USC respectively). With QB Travis Wilson’s hand back to 100 percent and with a softer defense to play against, the Utes should look to regain their swagger against the Ducks. Remember that Dres Anderson is still ranked #2 in the country in receptions longer than 50 yards, there is a possibility that Jake Murphy may make a triumphant return from injury, and the Utes’ rushing attack is starting to gain momentum as it helps chew up the clock to keep the Utah defense on the sideline.
Expect the country to be surprised (again) this weekend. Family on three.