Utes take aim at Ducks in Pac-12 title game

Field Level Media

December 03, 2019 at 4:10 am.

The fifth-ranked Utah Utes completed their best regular season since 2008, and now have a realistic path to College Football Playoff. In their way are the No. 13 Oregon Ducks and a Pac-12 championship game matchup Friday in Santa Clara, Calif.

Utah (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12 Conference) won eight straight to close the regular season, rebounding from a Sept. 20 loss at Southern California.

“We have been a lot more relentless during this stretch, and we just didn’t want to leave any doubt,” wide receiver Demari Simpkins said of Utah’s winning streak, in which it won by an average of 29 points per game. “Everybody doubted us after that loss and we just had something to prove.”

The Utes played most of their sole loss without star running back Zack Moss, who led the conference with 1,246 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns.

The ground-game production of Moss feeds the efficient passing of quarterback Tyler Huntley, and vice versa. Huntley has been one of the most dependable passers in college football this season, completing 75.5 percent of his 249 attempts and gaining an average of 11.1 yards per attempt.

Both his completion percentage and yards-per-attempt are conference-highs. His 8-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, with 16 scores against two picks, ranks second behind only Oregon State’s Jake Luton (28 TDs, 3 INTs).

Utah is making its second consecutive trip to the Pac-12 title game, but its first with Huntley, Moss and wide receiver Britain Covey all available. Huntley and Moss missed last year’s 10-3 loss to Washington with injuries sustained in the final month of the season. Covey sustained an injury during the game.

Oregon (10-2, 8-1) returns to Santa Clara and the Pac-12 championship game for the first time since 2014, when its blowout win over Arizona cemented a place in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

The Ducks’ makeup this time around is dramatically different. Gone are the hurry-up, no-huddle concepts that defined Oregon football for the latter half of the 2000s and first half of this decade. In is a physical style of football with a balanced run-pass approach predicated on dominant offensive-line play.

Oregon’s look is similar to Utah’s in that regard, and the same is true of their defenses. Utah leads the Pac-12 — and the nation — in rushing defense, allowing just 56.3 yards per game. Oregon is second in the conference (10th in FBS) at 106.1. Both schools have given up just four rushing touchdowns all season.

Utah’s success against the run will force Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert to throw downfield more against a Utah defense that has intercepted more passes (13) than it has allowed passing touchdowns (12).

“When you have a quarterback like we do and you’re running the ball effectively you have to continue to try to take a shot, you have to continue to try to push the ball down the field,” Ducks coach Mario Cristobal said in his Monday press conference. “Not all of it (is) down the field, but you still have to make sure that you maintain some type of balance so that your running game continues to be effective.”

Losing tight end Jacob Breeland midway through the season hindered some of the Ducks’ ability to throw down the field. Wide receiver Juwan Johnson emerged in the final month as something of a downfield target, and he is averaging 15.2 yards per reception.

Utah will aim to counter Johnson’s size (6-foot-4) with 6-foot-1, 204-pound, physical cornerback Julian Blackmon.

The prospect of a virtual playoff play-in game pitting two 11-1 opponents head-to-head evaporated on Nov. 23, when Oregon lost 31-28 at Arizona State. The Ducks endured an uncharacteristic two-interception game from Herbert in the loss. On the season, Herbert has thrown just five interceptions against 31 touchdowns.

Even with 11-1 vs. 11-1 off the table, Utah still must get past Oregon to be in the playoff discussion with the winner of Saturday’s Big 12 championship game between Baylor and Oklahoma, and a potential second Southeastern Conference bid if Georgia can upend undefeated LSU.