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BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/How soon will Herbert return to quarterback for the Ducks?

DUCKS FOOTBALLIt's the first of three consecutive games where I'm going to make the theoretical statement, "The Ducks got a chance to win, if ... Justin Herbert plays," until that happens.

Count me among the media types who believe Herbert, who has been out with a healing broken collarbone, could play against Utah, 2:45 p.m. Saturday at Autzen Stadium. Medical clearance happens, sometimes, without the public and media knowing — especially in the days and hours before a game. But, if not Saturday, it could be Nov. 4 at Washington or, probably more realistically, after the bye week against Arizona at home Nov. 18.

I think he'll play again this season, and not be shut down; he's returned to practice and he's throwing, but the Ducks want to be cautious because of the re-injuring factor.

Herbert's return wouldn't guarantee victory, but it would give the Ducks a better chance at a big win than playing poor-passing Braxton Burmeister again.

Utah (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12), like Oregon (4-4, 1-4) losers of three consecutive games, will be a tough opponent. Herbert and, ironically, Darren Carrington helped rally the Ducks past the Utes last year at Salt Lake City, the two connecting on the game-winning 17-yard touchdown play with two seconds left in the 30-28 win. It's ironic, because after transgressions at Oregon, Carrington was kicked off the team and was picked up by Utah.

The Utes feature young QB Tyler Huntley, running back Zack Moss, Carrington and a good offensive line, as well as a typically solid defense that can rush the passer and create turnovers.

Utah lost close games to Stanford and USC, before being routed at home by Arizona State. Under coach Kyle Whittingham, the Utes usually bounce back, and I'd expect them to win, even given a surprise Herbert return.

What to expect from Oregon's offense? "Depends on who the quarterback is," Whittingham says. "Obviously, they are more run-oriented with the freshman with the QB run game, and not quite as complex. That is to be expected," when Herbert, a burgeoning Pac-12 star and NFL prospect, can't play.

The Utes likely will want to establish the run with Huntley and Moss and find Carrington, who made many big plays for Oregon the past three seasons. Moss needs more work, Whittingham adds, saying, "He is on his way to being a 1,000-yard back, if we feed him the ball a little bit more."

But the Utes are also trying to cement their offensive identity.

The Duck defenders, under coordinator Jim Leavitt, "are playing hard, and they have a lot of athletes," Whittingham says. "They are fast on defense, and we will have our hands full."

Not many people can forget the 62-20 Utah win at Autzen two years. I'm sure the Ducks who played in the game will remember the humiliating dress-down. Even assuming Burmeister plays, I expect the Ducks to play well, running the ball and defending the Utes, and if they play hard and with some desperation and not make many mistakes — penalties, turnovers, Burmeister errors — they'll stay in the game.

Arizona State rushed for 206 yards on 46 carries and absolutely dominated time of possession with nearly 37 minutes to Utah's 23. That stuff doesn't happen against Utah very often. The Ducks can duplicate the success, but Burmeister needs to make positive plays, improving on his two significant completions last week at UCLA — to maybe five or six big completions to complement the run game with Royce Freeman and others.

If the Ducks play well, the Autzen crowd could get into the game. "It is a tough place to play," Whittingham says, despite Utah's 42-point win in 2015. "It is very loud, the student section will get after you and it is a great facility. It is a great venue to play in."

But if the Ducks don't play well, the crowd wouldn't get into the game.

If Herbert plays, I'll give the Ducks a chance to win. If he doesn't, I don't see a victory happening with Burmeister. And, I expect Utah to play sound and solid football, ending its three-game losing streak.

THE PICK: Utah 31, Oregon 20

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