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Opponent Preview: Oregon Defense

Pac-12 Championship Game - Oregon v Utah Alika Jenner/Getty Images

If there’s one thing the Oregon Ducks have always had since the start of the PAC-12 era (and the years leading up to expansion), it’s star power. Big-name recruits with four and five star labels bestowed upon them are the norm in Eugene, and this year is no different, especially on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, draft guru Mel Kiper already has one Duck pegged as his top pick in the 2022 NFL draft.

Sophomore defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (6’5”, 258 lbs) is looking to join a rare field of NFL athletes who were drafted number one overall while also being rated as the top high school recruit in the nation, a club that so far includes only Jadaveon Clowney and Trevor Lawrence. As one of the PAC-12’s elite defenders, his size and stature alone is enough to catch the eye of NFL scouts around the league, and when you account for his faultless footwork, speed and ball awareness, there’s no doubt that Thibodeaux is an NFL-ready talent that would improve almost any offensive line from day one. Considering Utah’s offensive line has some question marks heading into Saturday (head coach Kyle Whittingham announced at his Monday press conference that injuries will not be disclosed for the remainder of the season), Thibodeaux will surely be a disruptive presence for the Ducks.

Unfortuatnely for the Utes, battling against Thibodeaux is only one piece of Oregon’s defensive puzzle the offense needs to account for as freshman linebacker Noah Sewell (6’3”, 251 lbs) is a force to be reckoned with in his own right. With a team-leading 79 total tackles, Sewell is a full-fledged weapon that can plug holes against the rush or chase down a quarterback while avoiding contact. His ability to bat passes down from behind the line is as impressive as his speed and agility, making him arguably the single most dangerous defender the Ducks will field Saturday night.

With an impressive level of talent ready to stop Utah’s highly regarded rush offense and apply pressure to sophomore QB Cameron Rising, the PAC-12’s top-rated passer will need to stay on his A-game to account for sophomore safety Verone McKinley III (5’11”, 194 lbs.). While his 58 total tackles and four pass breakups are impressive enough as is, McKinley leads the conference with five interceptions, though only two of those have come during conference play, and none have been advanced more than one yard. While Rising has done a fine job of avoiding interceptions, the Ducks’ defense has recorded eleven overall on the season, and turnover margin could easily turn into the tale of the tape when the PAC-12’s top two teams clash in front of a national audience in primetime.

Statistically speaking, the Oregon’s defense sits around the middle of the pack, both within the conference (5th in overall defense), and nationally (58th), allowing 369.4 yards per game. Worse yet, their defense is allowing points on 82.5% of red zone trips, a statistic that should bode well for a Utah offense that ranks 37th in overall production and scores on 81.5% of red zone trips. Utah’s aggressive approach on the offensive side this season, in particular on 4th and short situations may very well be a factor against a defense that is allowing so much production.

Ultimately, all signs point to both teams being fairly equally matched. Utah’s record may indicate they’re the inferior team, but few would argue they aren’t a drastically better team now than the one that lost to San Diego State in week three. If all goes well, these two teams should meet again in the PAC-12 championship in what is sure to be the revenge game of the decade for whoever loses the first round of this heavyweight matchup.