A viewer's guide to Oregon-Utah: Matchups to watch, key stats, and a prediction
No. 10 Utah (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12) at No. 12 Oregon (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12)
7:30 p.m. PT, Autzen Stadium
Latest line (via FanDuel): Utes -2.5
Oregon’s key players
QB Bo Nix: 2,774 passing yards (72.8% completion rate), 24 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, 512 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns
QB Ty Thompson: 72 passing yards (55% completion rate), 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, -2 rushing yards, 0 rushing touchdowns
RB Bucky Irving: 120 rushing attempts, 837 rushing yards (7.0 yards per carry), 247 receiving yards, 5 total touchdowns
WR Troy Franklin: 44 receptions, 775 yards (17.6 yards per catch), 6 touchdowns
CB Christian Gonzalez: 44 tackles, 7 pass breakups, 3 interceptions
Utah’s key players
QB Cameron Rising: 2,225 passing yards (66.3% completion rate), 19 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 335 rushing yards, 6 rushing touchdowns
RB Tavion Thomas: 123 carries, 632 rushing yards (5.1 yards per carry), 44 receiving yards, 7 total touchdowns
TE Dalton Kincaid: 50 receptions, 649 yards (13.0 yards per catch), 7 touchdowns
S Cole Bishop: 60 tackles (team high), 6 TFLs, 3 pass breakups, 1 interception
CB Clark Phillips III: 21 tackles, 2 TFLs, 3 pass breakups, 5 interceptions
When Oregon has the ball
Obviously, the biggest storyline with the Ducks is their health. Bo Nix and center Alex Forsyth were both injured in the Ducks’ 37-34 loss to Washington. Nix’s value is obvious. Forsyth is getting my vote for the Outland Trophy. Coach Dan Lanning comes from the “strategic advantage” school of thought; he’s not going to reveal what’s going on until it’s gametime.
Oregon has produced one of the most potent offenses in all of college football this season (42.2 points per game, fourth; 7.2 yards per play, fourth), and Nix’s ability to make the right play at the right time has been as big a reason why as any. He’s taken off and picked up yardage when needed. He’s been the main option in short-yardage spots. And he’s been accurate with the football throwing around the line of scrimmage or bombing downfield.
Things change if Thompson is at the controls. He’s only thrown 20 passes all season. And the spot he might potentially find himself in on Saturday against Utah would be unlike any he’s experienced. Dillingham would surely look to protect his young quarterback.
If it’s forced to lean harder on the run game, that wouldn’t necessarily be playing into Utah’s hands, though. Utah ranks 87th nationally in yards per carry allowed this year, and is average at best at stuffing runs for losses.
The Utes have been improving as a pass-rushing unit, but they’ll come into the game missing their leading sack-getter in Van Fillinger. It’s not all Fillinger — Utah ranks seventh nationally in forced sack rate and eight different guys have multiple on the year — but he was the leader.
Oregon doesn’t give up sacks. If your options are running on the Utah defense or throwing it anywhere near Clark Phillips III, there’s definitely a more attractive option between the two.
When Utah has the ball
Utah has a matchup advantage that could really dictate the terms of engagement here. Dalton Kincaid torched USC on Oct. 15 for 234 yards on 16 receptions. He missed the Arizona game on Nov. 5 but returned to the field last week against Stanford.
“He’s still not 100 percent, there’s some soreness,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said this week. “But he’s a lot further ahead today than he was last Monday.”
Oregon’s pass defense has been one of the leakiest in the country this season. Opposing quarterbacks are averaging 7.6 yards per pass against the Ducks (91st nationally, from the defensive perspective) and completing 66.1% of their throws (121st nationally).
The Utes appear to be getting back to themselves. Against Stanford last weekend, Tavion Thomas looked fresh as he rumbled for a career-best 180 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. It was not only his best performance as a Ute, but his first extensive action in over a month.
The fifth-year junior was sporadically deployed over a six-game stretch from Sept. 24 at Arizona State through Nov. 5 against Arizona. He was reportedly suspended for the first half of the game against the Sun Devils. He did not travel to Utah’s game against Washington State on Oct. 27. Against Oregon State, USC, and Arizona, he had 22 combined carries.
Oregon has been more stout against the run, but how much of that has to do with usage? Teams are happy to throw on Oregon because they know they’ll be able to move the football. Lanning said this week he expects a knockback kind of game. Both sides want to hit each other at the point of attack. Utah’s brand has been a forceful run game that opens up play-action.
Numbers to know
2 — Oregon is the only team in the country to have allowed fewer than five sacks this year. The Ducks have given up two sacks in 10 games.
55 — Oregon tailback Bucky Irving has forced 55 missed tackles on 120 rushing attempts, per PFF. That mark ranks sixth among all Power Five runners. He’s an absolute nightmare to bring down, and frequently makes the first defender miss.
62 — Utah has the third-most tackles for loss of any Pac-12 team this season. Best way to flummox a young quarterback? Get him behind the chains.
Oregon’s lack of health on the offensive side of the ball makes this a tough game to call. We’ve seen Oregon struggle in the red zone at times this year, so if it is forced to move the ball more methodically via the run, will it be able to pay off drives with touchdowns and not field goals? I think we’ll see points, and I think Kincaid can have another monster performance if he’s on the field. If a couple of drives short-circuit in the red zone, Oregon will find itself in a bind. The environment should be electric, and that’ll help the Ducks. I don’t think Lanning is as aggressive as we saw him a week ago against the Huskies, especially so if Thompson is leading out the offense instead of Nix. It feels like a cop-out, but I’m going to hedge a bit here.
If Nix plays, Oregon wins 41-35. If Nix is out, Utah wins 38-33