Utah is headed back to Santa Clara, California for the second straight year to represent the PAC-12 South division in the conference championship after a devastating loss in 2018. This time around, the Utes will face the Ducks of Eugene, Oregon, with a little more than a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line. With Utah squarely in the hunt for a playoff spot, possible bowl destinations include anything from the Peach or Fiesta, the Rose or Cotton, or even the Alamo if things go terribly wrong, but before discussing any of that, the Utes will need to work their way through a stingy Ducks defense.
Much has been said about Utah’s defensive prowess in 2019, holding opponents to 11.3 points per page on average, all while allowing a nation-leading 56.4 yards on the ground during the regular season, however Oregon’s defense has been an equally dominant force in the PAC-12 North, allowing 15.8 points per game (10th in the nation), while giving up 107.7 yards in the ground game (ranked 12th). The difference comes down to play in the secondary, with Utah’s pass defense allowing 185.3 yards, ranking them 14th in the nation, while Oregon’s ranks all the way down at 64th, giving up an abysmal 225.3 yards on average this season.
Despite a deficiency in their pass defense, sophomore safety Jevon Holland (6’1”, 196 lbs.) has had an impressive season, accounting for four of Oregon’s 15 total interceptions, including a pick six against Washington State that was paramount in securing their 35-37 victory over the Cougars. His seemingly magnetic hands led head coach, Mario Cristobal, to praise the young star, claiming “he’s actually a better wide receiver than he is a [defensive back], but we’re not going to make that move any time soon”, and it’s no wonder, considering Holland is the team’s third leading tackler on a defense loaded with NFL-caliber talent.
Holland isn’t alone in the backfield, with redshirt freshman corner Verone McKinley III (5’10”, 192 lbs.) also accounting for four additional INTs this season, along with 45 total tackles. Utah’s Tyler Huntley has been incredibly accurate this season, completing 75.5% of his passes with only two INTs on the season, however with a ball-hawking secondary like Oregon’s, Huntley will need to be at his best to avoid the upset.
Up front, the 6’5”, 242 lb. human wrecking ball Kayvon Thibodeaux has made a name for himself by tallying a team-high 6.5 sacks as a true freshman. Add to that 11.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble, and his presence on the field can’t go unnoticed. As the nation’s #2 overall prospect coming in to this season, Thibodeaux has lived up to the hype surrounding his five-star rating, becoming one of the biggest contributors to Oregon’s defensive success.
With a bevy of talented youth, it’s senior linebacker Troy Dye (6’4”, 226 lbs.) who adds some experience to the Ducks’ defensive effort. As the team’s leading tackler over the last three seasons, Dye is again on track to finish the season as the statistical leader in total sacks, having accrued 67 throughout the regular season, 12 more than junior cornerback, Thomas Graham Jr., the second leading tackler on the Oregon roster.
The Utes have had no problems moving the ball, especially towards the end of the season as Tyler Huntley’s connection with tight end Brant Kuithe has become more and more prominent, however the Ducks bring a ferocious defense that Utah hasn’t seen since the dramatic dogfight against Washington in week ten. Whether or not the Utes are capable of scoring against one of the nation’s best defenses will be telling for just how high this team can climb as the post-season rolls on.