No. 17 Utah (6-2, 3-2 in the Pac-12) looks to go duck hunting against the no. 4 Oregon Ducks (8-1, 5-1 in the Pac-12) on Saturday Nov. 8th at 8 PM MT (televised on ESPN) in Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah and Oregon have only faced off once as members of the Pac-12, with Oregon winning the match up last season in Eugene, Ore. 44-21. The last time Utah and Oregon squared off in Salt Lake City was in 2003, with Utah winning 17-13 against the no. 19 Ducks. Oregon leads the overall series 19-8, with an 8-4 advantage in Salt Lake City.
The Utah passing attack has struggled this year. Utah has had games with 100, 63, and 57 passing yards, and once again, the Utes have opened the quarterback competition between Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson. Whoever gets the start will face a Ducks secondary that has struggled at times to stop the pass (291.1 passing yards per game, 119th in the nation). Oregon does have All-American Efo Ekpre-Olomu waiting in the secondary (two interceptions this season). Safety Eric Dargen has been a playmaker for the Ducks as well with five interceptions on the season, which leads the Pac-12.
Oregon has an elite quarterback in Marcus "Super" Mariota. He is arguably the best quarterback in the country, a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, and may be the first pick in the NFL Draft if he declares. Mariota can hurt a defense through the air (7.8 to 1 career touchdown to interception ratio) and on the ground (4.4 40 speed). Simply put, Mariota will be the best quarterback will face this year and is the best quarterback to play a game in Rice-Eccles Stadium since Utah's Brian Johnson in 2008.
The key to slowing down Oregon's prolific offense is to rattle Mariota. In Oregon's lone loss against Arizona, Mariota was sacked seven times. Since left tackle Jake Fisher returned from injury, the offensive line has performed better protecting their star quarterback. The Oregon offensive line will have a huge test against Utah's defense that leads the nation in sacks.
"I'm not knocking Stanford at all but Utah, I think they're better than Stanford front seven-wise," Oregon center Hroniss Grasu said.
All of this will likely have to happen without right tackle Matt Pierson, who may be out with an MCL sprain. Either true freshman Tyrell Crosby or sophomore Cameron Hunt would have to step in if Pierson cannot go. The right tackle for Oregon will have his hands full with Utah defensive end Hunter Dimick, who has nine sacks this season. Fisher will have to battle Utah defensive end Nate Orchard (12.0 sacks, 2nd nationally). For Utah to win the game, the front seven will need to get constant pressure on Mariota and force him into bad decisions (which are rare).
Utah cornerback Eric Rowe is supposed to return after suffering an injury against USC. Having him back will boost the Utah secondary that performed admirably in his absence against Arizona State. Cornerback Dominique Hatfield played well against Arizona State star wide receiver Jaelon Strong. The Utah secondary will have their hands full with the speedy Oregon receivers. Devon Allen owns the NCAA Track and Field Championship title in the 110 meter high hurdles and has demonstrated the same speed on the football field. He leads the Ducks in touchdown receptions (6) and is second in yards (517) and receptions (29). Allen is a big play threat, averaging 17.8 yards per reception. He's joined in the receiving corps by Dwayne Stanford. The sophomore wide out is a big target at 6-5, 201. He topped 100 yards receiving against Cal and has four receiving touchdowns on the year. He has a minimum three-inch height advantage over Utah's defensive backs, which could cause match up problems for the Utes.
Oregon's always potent rushing attack is led by freshman running back Royce Freeman (94 rushing yards per game and 13 touchdowns). He is a bruising back at 6-1, 229 with impressive quickness, especially given his size. Due to the emergence of Freeman, running back Byron Marshall has played more slot receiver and leads the team in receptions (50) and receiving yards (539). Marshall is still a threat rushing the ball though. Against Cal, he had 4 carries for 133 yards. Thomas Tyner is the other Oregon running back to watch.
Utah running back Devontae Booker will look for another 100-yard game against Oregon's rushing defense (167.4 rushing yards per game, 68th). The formula to beat Oregon the last three seasons has been to run the ball and play good defense. Oregon has given up 246.5 yards rushing per games in their four losses with Mariota as the starting quarterback. By moving the ball on the ground, it takes away possessions from the high scoring Oregon offense. With strong performances against Pac-12 teams, Booker is only 10 yards short of a 1,000 yard rushing season. If he continues at his same pace, Booker could break John White IV's single season rushing record of 1,519 yards.
The Utah linebackers will have the challenge of trying to take away Marshall and talented tight end Pharaoh Brown in the passing game and setting the edge against Mariota, Freeman, Marshall, and Tyner in the running game. Utah linebacker Gionni Paul has been wonderful in coverage this season, snaring four interceptions (second in the Pac-12 and first nationally among linebackers). Linebacker Jared Norris is not a flashy player and does not get as much hype as other linebackers, but he is tough and just always seems to make plays. Defensive end Jason Fanaika has spent time at linebacker this season as well and intercepted a pass against USC. Expect to see one of these players spying Mariota all game to try to prevent him from gashing the defense with a big run.