This weekend, Autzen stadium will host a top-20 matchup between the no. 18 Utah Utes and the no. 13 Oregon Ducks. For Utah it is a chance to kick off conference play with a bang. Defeating the defending Pac-12 champs on their home turf in a nationally televised game would be a huge statement that this Utah team is a contender in the Pac-12 south. It won't be easy, the Ducks have one of the best home field advantages in all of college football with an overall record of 36-3 and an 8-1 record against ranked opponents since 2010 at Autzen. With all the prestige and accolades the Ducks have earned in the past half decade, there appears to be weaknesses on this year's team, specifically on defense. If Utah is going to beat Oregon in Autzen this is the year to do it.
Defensive coordinator Don Pellum is in his second year as defensive coordinator for the Ducks. Pellum, a former Oregon player and veteran member of the Oregon coaching staff has been drawing some criticism this year for his group's performance. The Duck defense currently ranks 105th in the FBS in total defense. They are allowing 456.3 yards of offense per game and rank 104th in the nation in scoring defense, having given up 14 touchdowns in just three games.
They currently rank dead last in the Pac-12 in total defense, in yards given up per game and yards given up per play (5.93). Where Oregon seems to struggle the most this season is against the pass, where they have surrendered 948 pass yards, also ranking last in the Pac-12. Oregon gave up 438 passing yards to Eastern Washington in their first game, an FCS team breaking in a new quarterback. Last week against lowly Georgia State, they allowed 318 yards passing. Their best performance against the pass was in the Michigan State game, which they lost, where they held Connor Cook to 192 yards passing. It should be noted however, that Michigan State is not known for having a prolific passing offense.
While Oregon has been better against the run, ranking fifth in the Pac-12, they have still given up over 100 yards in all three games. This is great news for the Utes who figure to lean heavily on Devontae Booker, even if Travis Wilson returns. The Ducks have not faced a back as good as Booker yet this season, and though Booker was held largely in check running the ball during last year's matchup, the Duck front seven does not look nearly as sound this year.
Some of the reasons for Oregon's defensive struggles this season can be attributed to personnel turnover. Gone from the secondary are three starters from a year ago, including Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. The only returning starter is junior Reggie Daniels at safety. He's joined at the safety position with safety Tyree Robinson. Sophomores Chris Seisay and Arrion Springs are the new starters at cornerback.
Despite the secondary giving up a lot of yards through the air, they have been able to off-set some of the yardage with timely turnovers. Robinson had a big game against Georgia State last weekend, grabbing two interceptions including a pick-six he took back 41 yards for a touchdown on Georgia State's opening drive. Springs had a fumble recovery last week, and Chris Seisay, freshman Ugo Amadi and sophomore Juwaan Williams all have one interception a piece through the first three games.
On the front seven, Oregon has a little more experience. Senior defensive end DeForest Buckner leads the defensive line with 15 total tackles, four tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks so far this season. Joining Buckner on the line is senior nose tackle Alex Balducci and senior defensive end Tui Talia.
In the linebacking corp, senior Joe Walker should be a familiar name for Utah fans. Walker was the one who scooped up Kaelin Clay's drop in last year's game and took it 100 yards back for a touchdown. He had another scoop-and-score last week against Georgia State, returning a fumble 52 yards for an Oregon touchdown. He is joined by Tyson Coleman, Rodney Hardrick, and Christian French at the linebacker position. Walker leads the team in tackles with 23 this season. Christian French leads the linebackers in tackles for a loss with 3.5, and French, Walker and Coleman each have one sack a piece.
Obviously Booker's success against the Oregon front seven will go a long way in determining how this game plays out. The real key however will be how effectively Utah can move the ball through the air without committing turnovers. Oregon's secondary has shown it will give up big passing yardage to average quarterbacks, but it will also capitalize on mistakes in the form of interceptions. If Travis Wilson is able to play on Saturday, he should have time to find receivers like Britain Covey and Siale Faikaloatonga on crossing routes. Kenneth Scott has the size and experience to take advantage against the Ducks younger, more inexperienced corners on the outside.
If Wilson is unable to go, the field will shrink for the Oregon defense with Thompson's throwing ability. As was evidenced on Saturday, the Utah offense is pretty one dimensional with Thompson behind center, and the Ducks will be able to stack the box to stop the run. Moving the ball through the air provides the path of least resistance against Oregon and in turn will open the running game for Booker. If Utah can develop a consistent pass threat against the Ducks and limit interceptions, Utah has a shot to pull the upset in Eugene.