Utes look to salvage their Pac-12 title aspirations when the Ducks pay a visit to Salt Lake City
October went flawlessly for Utah football. November began with a familiar refrain for frustrated Utes.
Trailing by one point last week at Arizona State, quarterback Tyler Huntley suffered a broken collarbone. Unable to move the ball, the Utes' offense stagnated and the flood gates opened, with the Sun Devils pouring on the next 17 points and flipping the script in the Pac-12 South title race.
Utah now needs to regroup in time for its final two Pac-12 games and hope for an Arizona State loss. But that's only if the Utes avoid another setback. With a tough Oregon team visiting Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, the stakes are high for Utah in its penultimate conference game.
Oregon at Utah
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 10 at 5:30 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Utah -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Shelley time
Prior to his insertion into the lineup last week at Arizona State, Utah quarterback Jason Shelley had last completed a pass on Aug. 30 against Weber State. Whether rust, inexperience or nerves from the gravity of the situation, Shelley struggled mightily. He went 4-of-11 passing for 59 yards with an interception.
Shelley will come into this week's game with first-team practice reps. How much that impact his performance may well be the single greatest decider in Saturday's contest. Huntley had come into his own as a passer in recent weeks, keying Utah's run of four straight games scoring at least 40 points prior to the Arizona State loss. Shelley doesn't need to be as prolific as Huntley, but the Utes need a balance to keep Jim Leavitt's Oregon defense honest.
The Ducks hold opponents to just 3.78 yards per carry rushing on the season. If Shelley's ineffective, or rattled under pressure, that will stifle a run game already challenged this week due to the absence of running back Zack Moss, who sustained a season-ending knee injury Wednesday in practice.
With Moss out of the lineup, Armand Shyne gets the call. Shyne was Utah's leading rusher through the first five games of 2016 before an injury that sidelined him the rest of the campaign. He's been the Utes' No. 2 ball-carrier this season.
2. Starting fast
Oregon snapped a two-game losing skid last week with a 42-21 rout of UCLA. The Ducks built the final margin of victory by the 13:10 mark in the second quarter.
It was quite the juxtaposition from the previous two weeks, when Washington State and Arizona jumped ahead in the first half by margins of four and three touchdowns, respectively. Oregon never recovered at Arizona, but the Ducks got within a score in the fourth quarter against Washington State before the Cougars shut the door. The roles were reversed against UCLA; building an early lead allowed Oregon to step on the Bruins' throat once UCLA trimmed the lead to 14 points in the final period.
In contrast, Utah's winning streak in October saw the Utes repeatedly build multiple-score leads before intermission — even against USC, after falling behind 14-0. The Utes do not have a style, particularly with Huntley injured, conducive to playing from behind as effectively as when they can build an early advantage.
3. Special teams and field position tussle
Utah's one of the best teams in the nation in special teams — which means Britain Covey's muff on a punt last week, negated by off-setting Utes penalties, was something of a rarity. It was also a moment indicative of Utah's surprising struggles in the desert.
Covey's explosiveness on returns and Mitch Wishnowsky's punting typically give Utah an edge in field positon. On the season, Utah typically starts drives at its own 35, per CFBanalytics.com. This week, the Utes face an opponent that's been even better in that regard, starting the average drive at its own 37-yard line.
The field-position battle came into play for both teams last week. Arizona State scored on Utah with drives that began at its own 47 and 38. Against UCLA, Oregon had starting field-position of the UCLA 11 and the Oregon 49, in addition to a punt return touchdown from Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week, Ugochukwu Amadi.
So much hinges on how Shelley performs this week. It's a scenario Oregon knows well: The Ducks looked like championship contenders a season ago with quarterback Justin Herbert in the lineup but struggled mightily without him.
Utah needs a less dire prognosis if it's to maintain its Pac-12 Championship aspirations. Like Arizona State's a week ago, Oregon comes to town with a defense that has plenty of talent, and can be very good against run — but isn't always. With Moss sidelined, however, that makes its job easier. Shyne was explosive in 2016, sat out '17, and has been more of a change-of-pace back this season.
Leavitt will have a game plan to test Shelley, but Utah has a deep and diverse corps of pass catchers. But with no Moss, the quarterback's job is much more difficult — perhaps insurmountable.
Prediction: Oregon 28, Utah 21