Can Ducks avenge loss, or will Utes finally reach Rose Bowl?
Thirteen days ago, 31 points separated the football teams from Utah and Oregon.
At 5 p.m. Friday, Dec. 3, at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, the Ducks get a do-over. Oregon can win its third consecutive Pac-12 championship if it beats Utah in the title game televised nationally by ABC. To accomplish that, it must solve a highly motivated bunch of Utes who are playing for their program's first Pac-12 title and first Rose Bowl berth.
Urged on by 53,000 rollicking fans on Nov. 20 at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, the Utes left the Ducks' College Football Playoff hopes in tatters by delivering a 38-7 beatdown.
It was a result that raised questions about the toughness of Oregon, a team with a fairly young roster that looked nothing like a top-10 team on that Nov. 20 evening. Utah controlled the line of scrimmage, beat up Oregon in the trenches and — once the momentum was behind it —Â rumbled happily to a statement victory.
It certainly was a satisfying night for the Utes and their fans.
• Utah outgained Oregon 208-63 on the ground, holding the Ducks to 2.7 yards per running play.
• The Utes held the ball for 35:27, thanks to converting on 11 of 14 third downs of mostly short yardage.
• The Ducks, on the other hand, struggled to stay on the field. They were not good on first down, which led to third-down challenges and a 6-of-14 third-down success rate that resulted in the opposite of success.
Plain and simple, Utah outplayed and outschemed Oregon.
A week ago, there was reason to believe Oregon was physically and emotionally scarred to the point that many, including this writer, predicted Oregon State's multiple tight-end, power running game would replicate Utah's success and knock the Ducks out of the Pac-12 championship game.
Alas, after a poor outing at Utah, the Ducks' offensive line set the tone quickly against the Beavers. Alas, after a rough game at Utah, Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown Jr. delivered his most complete performance as a Duck.
What does all that mean for Friday's fracas? Probably not much.
Both Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and Oregon coach Mario Cristobal this week noted that none of the plays from the first meeting will count in round two. And, despite the one-sided feel two weeks ago, Oregon should rightly look at missed opportunities and think it has a legitimate chance to turn the tables. To wit:
Trailing 7-0, the Ducks lost nine yards on a first down play from the Utah 16 then had a field goal blocked.
Trailing 14-0, the Ducks had a first down at the Utes' 14 but a holding penalty pushed them back and another field goal went awry.
The final two minutes of the first half finished off things, the 78-yard Britain Covey punt return ensuring Oregon wouldn't make a game of it.
Could a similar cascade of bad plays doom the Ducks again? Of course. Is it likely? No.
Figure Oregon's offensive line communicates better than it did in the noise at Salt Lake City. Figure Oregon's young receivers are more prepared than they were when pressed into leading roles two weeks ago. If he isn't too distracted trying to recruit for his (soon to be) Akron team, figure offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead comes up with a successful plan.
Figure, too, based on a solid performance against Oregon State's running game, that (as long as banged up defenders including linebacker Noah Sewell are a go) Oregon's defense makes things more difficult for an efficient Utah offense than it did a couple weeks back.
Oregon is 4-0 in Pac-12 championship games, dating to the first one in 2011 (the North Division team has won nine of the 10). None of those Ducks' victories were in doubt late. In fact, only three of the first 10 Pac-12 football championship games have been truly competitive.
Figure this one is close, though. Figure, too, that Utah has the slight emotional edge as it plays to give Whittingham and Utes fans a Rose Bowl experience.
The Pick: Utah 28, Oregon 24.
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