You don’t beat Oregon through the air
Despite an excellent 74.1% completion rate (tied for 4th nationally), Utah is averaging only 6.2 yards per pass attempt, 102nd in the country. The Utes have rarely attempted to complete passes deep. They’ve epitomized the core foundational spirit of a spread offense, seeking to stretch the field laterally rather than north and south. Most analysts think the Utes’ chances on Saturday will rise and fall with their ability to complete deep passes and create explosive plays through the air. I couldn't agree less.
Oregon has had major weaknesses exposed in their passing defense. Eastern Washington racked up 438 yards, Georgia State had 318. Between the two teams, they averaged 7.95 yards per attempt. They also lost by wide margins. Last year, the Utes had a fantastic passing attack against the Ducks, picking up 9.7 yards per attempt and 320 yards through the air. Utah ran out of steam in the fourth quarter and lost by 24.
Michigan State was efficient enough in the passing game, picking up 6 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 127.8. What they did that EWU and Georgia State weren’t able to do was pick up lots of yards on the ground. The Spartans scored two touchdowns on 197 rushing yards, over 5 yards per carry.
The formula for beating Oregon is to run the ball. A lot. It's been the formula for much of the Ducks' run of national prominence. Despite opponent's offenses averaging 38.4 rushes per game from 2012 through 2014, the formula for actually winning involved a lot more ball control: 55 rushes per game, on average. Efficiency was less important than being truly dedicated to attacking the defense the old fashioned way: between the tackles and pads-first.
There may be teams that can outpace the Oregon offense, matching them score for score until the end. Cal will take a crack at it this year, Washington State has no other option. One thing is certain: this Utes team doesn’t fit that mold and it’s a folly to try. Oregon loses games when they are confronted with physical line play and an offense that insists on playing football on its own terms. Offenses which try to keep up with Oregon fall into the trap that the Ducks have set: it may work for a while, but eventually their opponents either make mistakes that end drives early or they get worn out and stop executing as well.
I love a good deep ball as much as the next football fan, and the Utes do generally need to take the top of the offense and make defenses closely cover receivers when they run routes that travel more than 10 yards downfield. They shouldn’t particularly focus on attacking the Oregon secondary, though. Booker should get the ball more than ever this Saturday and should have the ball handed to him, not thrown. To do otherwise plays right into the Ducks’ hands, even if the numbers are gaudy.
The Utes are a running team at their core. The best players on the offense from both a college and a pro perspective play on the line and run the ball. It so happens that what the Utes do very best is also their best chance to defeat the Ducks. It’s a mistake to try and turn the offense into something it isn’t for one game. Play to the Utes’ strengths, rely on a very good defense to slow down Oregon’s offense, and hit the Duck in the bill again and again and again. That’s how you beat them.
Advanced Metrics Overview
This is the last week we’ll be using this table for analysis; most teams will have five games under their belt to consider, and stats from the 2015 season will be more reliable than conjecture and projections from 2014. We’ll start rolling more specific and detailed advanced metrics into this section as time goes on. Don’t be too sad, they served their purpose admirably and will be back again next year.
Oregon returns most everything but their secondary and Marcus Mariota. These two areas have been points of relative weakness for the Ducks; we’ve already been over their struggles in the passing game, and while Vernon Adams has been quite good when he’s been healthy enough to play, he hasn’t been able to fill Marcus Mariota’s (once in a generation) shoes. Nonetheless, there’s plenty of skill at the lines and talented ball carriers. This is still a team that’s going to score a ton of points and have a more efficient defense than you would expect.
From an advanced metrics perspective, the Utes start their conference schedule by running into a brick wall. The Ducks are very, very good and the Utes haven’t seen the same climb in the numbers as they’ve seen in the polls. Particularly on the road, these numbers project a lopsided Ducks win, although the Utes should be good enough to keep it marginally competitive.
There’s no way to put a shine on these numbers; the Utes are overmatched and in enemy territory on Saturday. It’s going to take everything the Utes have and likely a little bit of luck as well to overcome the gap that separates these two teams.
Vegas and the polls
Vegas Insider says this game opened at a pick ‘em and quickly moved to -14 for the Ducks. Most lines I’ve seen had a double digit number favoring Oregon to start, and have shifted slightly for the Utes, about a field goal or so. The latest numbers have Oregon favored by 11.5.
Massey’s ratings aggregator, which collects polls and analytical rankings and averages them out, projects a much more even contest: Oregon is ranked 17th and Utah is ranked 19th. If you want to expect a close game, the wisdom of the crowd is where you should put your faith.
I want the Utes to win this game. I believe they have the right personnel and scheme to challenge and overcome the Ducks in Autzen. I think their poor statistics at points throughout the out of conference schedule reflect a lack of energy or focus (particularly towards the end of the Fresno State game) rather than talent or execution, most notably on the part of the defense. I hope that Adams’ finger takes zip and accuracy off his passes. My gut says the Utes are going to win this one by 5 or so.
Want, believe, think, hope, and gut are not what Stastically Speaking is all about, though. There are no numbers that favor the Utes, and few that suggest it will be a close game. The stats say that Oregon's shifty wide receivers are talented enough to expose the weak points in the Utes’ secondary, that Freeman will get enough yards to create gaps in the backfield, and that Adams will fill those gaps with accurate passes. They say that the grinding gears of the Utes’ offense won’t be able to keep up with the steady hum of the Ducks.
The Utes should score some points and keep things respectable throughout, but this is not a team the Utes can expect to upset on the road.