A Win Away From The Roses
The Rose Bowl is the goal, and the Oregon Ducks are one win or one loss away from playing in "The Granddaddy of Them All."
How weird is that?
If Oregon beats Utah in the Pac-12 championship game, 5 p.m. Friday at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, they'll advance to the big game Jan. 1 in Pasadena.
If the Utes (11-1) beat the Ducks (10-2), they could be selected for the College Football Playoff — especially should Georgia lose to LSU in the SEC title game — and UO would be headed to Pasadena as the Pac-12's No. 2 representative (as long as it remains ranked ahead of USC).
If Utah was snubbed, the Utes would go to the Rose Bowl and Oregon likely to the Alamo Bowl (Dec. 31 at San Antonio, Texas).
Utah enters the Pac-12 title tilt with a physical reputation, an experienced team, a senior dual-threat QB in Tyler Huntley, a big back (5-10, 215 pounds) in Zack Moss and one of the country's best defenses.
Many people have called their shot — Utah for the win.
Well, if quarterback Justin Herbert plays well, I think the Ducks will be smellin' roses.
I'll give Herbert the benefit of the doubt, even after his poor performances in the past two games. He declared after the Civil War win that "the game's not decided on my individual performance." True, but it can be enhanced with better performance, if he plays like a star quarterback should play.
What should give Oregon fans optimism:
• Oregon dominated with big plays on offense, defense and special teams and beat USC 56-24 against what ended up being the Pac-12's third-best team. The Utes lost to USC and a third-string QB, 30-23 on the same L.A. field (with Moss exiting due to a first-half injury).
• The Ducks beat Washington 35-31, the Utes beat the Huskies 33-28, both in Seattle with fourth-quarter comebacks.
• The Utes are dominating with league-leading defense — 11.2 points, 241.6 yards (including 56.2 on ground). The Ducks are right behind them at 15.8 points and 331.3 yards. But Oregon played Auburn, losing 27-21 on a TD pass with nine seconds left; Utah didn't play anybody nearly as good as Auburn.
• The reeling Ducks rallied to beat Utah, which had a Pac-12 title game to play for, in Salt Lake City in 2016 with a freshman quarterback, Herbert, 30-28. The next year, without Herbert and playing Braxton Burmeister, the Ducks thumped Utah 41-20 behind a strong running game (347 yards). Last year, Utah, playing with a backup QB and running back, had to rally to beat the slow-starting Ducks 32-25 on its home field; UO led with less than seven minutes left.
• Let's not forget, too, that the South Division champ has won only one of eight previous Pac-12 title games (USC, 2017).
So, while Utah has looked bruising and fierce and is playing for its first Pac-12 title, a quest that started at its entry into the league in 2011, the Ducks have their reasons for believing.
The Utes of Bradley Anae and Leki Fotu on the defensive line, Francis Bernard and others at linebacker and Jaylon Johnson and Julian Blackmon in the secondary have the Ducks' attention.
"We'll be ready for them," UO receiver Johnny Johnson III said. "We're a very physical team, especially on offense."
The Ducks expect to ride their senior QB, experienced offensive line and three-pronged rushing attack of CJ Verdell, Travis Dye and Cyrus Habibi-Likio. It would behoove them to let Herbert loose, throwing to Johnny Johnson, Juwan Johnson, Jaylon Redd, etc.; it's imperative to stretch out the Utah defense.
Huntley has great stats — including 75.5% passing — and has receiver playmakers (including Demari Simpkins) and good tight ends (Brant Kuithe, six TDs), but the bellcow remains Moss (1,246 yards, 6.2 yards/carry, 15 TDs). Watch for the playaction pass.
But, the Ducks have been pretty stout and physical themselves on defense.
"Utah is a very good football team, and they dominated all their opponents other than that one loss," cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. said. "We have to go out there and play our game, otherwise it's going to be ugly, and we don't want that."
And, the Ducks have more team speed, which could prove to be the difference.
I picked Oregon to go 10-2 and then beat Utah in the Pac-12 game. Can't go back on the call, just because of Utah hype, but it's all on Herbert's shoulders.
The pick: Oregon 31, Utah 27
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