By SPENCER McLAUGHLIN
Contributor, 750 The Game
Last year’s matchup with Utah at Autzen Stadium was a thriller start to finish. It was a slugfest, and the Ducks prevailed 20-17 while running for just 59 yards as a team. Oregon was outgained by over 100 yards on the ground, which has been a true rarity in the Dan Lanning era. That sort of script can’t repeat itself if the Ducks want to beat the No. 13 Utah Utes on Saturday afternoon (12:30 p.m., FOX).
Utah’s Kyle Whittingham is the best coach in the Pac-12. His teams are disciplined, well-coached, and have a clear identity every year — one that breeds success at a high clip. He hasn’t won consecutive Pac-12 Championships on the back of outstanding recruiting classes; he gets the most out of players that fit their culture every single season. They don’t hurt themselves with penalties, they have good gameplans, and play an insanely physical brand of football. Offensively, that starts with the rushing attack.
Utah is fifth in the Pac-12 this season in rushing yards per game at 183.3, about 12 yards behind Oregon State and…Cal? I know, I didn’t expect that one either — but the Bears are up next week. The focus is all on the Utes right now.
Oregon is the No. 1 rushing team in the Pac-12 to date at almost 227 yards per game, led by Bucky Irving who is coming off his best career game as a Duck. He had 180 yards of total offense and 3 touchdowns against Washington State, overshadowing another great outing from Bo Nix who went for 293 yards and a couple scores. The Ducks’ offense under OC Will Stein, and last year with Lanning at the helm as well, is at its best when they have balance. It’s why they’ve been one of the best in the country this year, averaging over 500 yards a game and having scored at least 33 points in every Pac-12 game this season.
The ground game looms large for the Ducks every week to be at their best, but they have a better counterpunch than Utah if that’s taken away. Bo Nix is a Heisman trophy candidate; Bryson Barnes was once a walk-on to this Utah football team. Oregon ran for a season-low 113 yards in Week 2 at Texas Tech, and still ended up with 38 points (including a pick-6). Nix threw for 359 yards and 2 touchdowns in the win. I was thinking back to last year’s Washington State game in Pullman when the Ducks fell behind by 2 possessions in the second half. Bo Nix led the comeback by throwing for a career-high 428 yards in a 44-41 barnburner. The Ducks ran it well, 178 yards on 5.6 yards per carry, but had to be brought back on the right arm of their quarterback.
Bryson Barnes is obviously capable of leading this Utah team to playing at a high level. That much is clear. In the last two weeks, they’ve scored 34 points in each game en route to wins over Cal and USC. In those outings, they’ve run for 282 yards/game on average. Oregon is only allowing 95 yards on the ground per game this year, but this is the best rushing attack they’ve gone up against. The Utes have a good offensive line, albeit one that (like the rest of the team) is a bit banged up. If I’m Oregon, I’m doing everything I can to stop Utah from running the ball. Last year in Eugene, the Utes ran for 156 yards on 4.3 yards/carry. If that happens again, the Ducks will be just fine. Bryson Barnes is capable and a great story, but cannot carry an offense on his own.
I think having Jestin Jacobs playing at linebacker is a nice piece to have for Dan Lanning’s defense this week. Utah’s defense is going to make life difficult for the Ducks, but their challenge is to contain them as best they can. Oregon’s offense has been really, really good this year. I love their weapons, and I love their balance.
Utah hasn’t lost a home game with fans in the stands since 2018 against eventual Pac-12 champion Washington. I think that ends on Saturday.
Prediction: Oregon 31, Utah 20
Spencer McLaughlin is an Oregon Ducks football contributor to 750 The Game. He also hosts the “Locked On Oregon Ducks” and “Locked On Pac-12” podcasts and has work featured throughout the season here.