Oregon will go for a third straight Pac-12 title on Friday night when the Ducks face the Utah Utes in Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Oregon is certainly no stranger to this stage, as the team will be playing in its fifth conference title game since its inception in 2011, the most of any Pac-12 member, and will be looking to keep a perfect record intact.
To do so, the Ducks will have to solve a Utah team that dominated them 38-7 in Salt Lake City two weeks ago. It was not a pretty performance for Oregon across the board, but here are five reasons why the Ducks will be the victorious one when the two teams meet again on Friday night.
5 Reasons Why Oregon Will Win the Pac-12 Championship Game
Oregon entered the Nov. 20 showdown with Utah No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings. The Ducks were seemingly positioned to give the Pac-12 its best shot at putting a team in the playoff in several years … and then they went out and looked awful in a 38-7 beatdown courtesy of the Utes. Oregon's playoff hopes disintegrated as Utah manhandled the Ducks on both sides of the line of scrimmage and also outclassed them on special teams.
To rub salt into the wound, not only was it the biggest loss in head coach Mario Cristobal's four-year tenure, the 31-point shellacking also marked the program's worst result in more than four years — 38-3 at Washington on Nov. 4, 2017. The stakes are plenty high enough for Friday night as it is, but you know there's an angry flock of Ducks that can't wait for another shot at the Utes.
2. Dynamic backfield
It didn't show up in the first meeting with Utah, but Oregon's offense has been powered by the tandem of quarterback Anthony Brown and running back Travis Dye this season. They are the two biggest reasons why the Ducks are 18th nationally in rushing offense, at 214 yards per game. Dye is third in the Pac-12 in both rushing yards (1,036) and touchdowns (14) while Brown is just outside the top 10 in yards (642) and has scored nine times on the ground. That's in addition to the 2,536 yards and 15 touchdowns he's accumulated through the air, with just four interceptions.
Dye had to pick up the slack following CJ Verdell's (406 yds., 6 TDs) season-ending injury in early October, and he has done just that. Dye's 29 rushing yards against the Utes was his lowest output of the season and one of just three games in which he didn't score a touchdown. Brown didn't turn the ball over, but he wasn't that effective against the Utes either, going 17-of-35 for 231 yards and a touchdown. He totaled just eight rushing yards on nine carries and also was sacked three times. But it's no fluke that Oregon finished fourth in both scoring (31.6 ppg, tied) and total (434.9 ypg) offense in conference games, and it starts with Brown and Dye.
3. Kayvon Thibodeaux
Utah enters this game with the Pac-12's No. 1 total defense and is second in scoring defense, but there's one thing the Utes don't have. And it's that Thibodeaux. Oregon's defensive end is a game-wrecker in the mold of a T.J. Watt or Myles Garrett. He could be the No. 1 overall pick in next year's NFL draft but not after he leaves his mark on the Pac-12 Championship Game, again.
Even though he didn't show out against Utah in the first meeting, the Utes know all too well what Thibodeaux is capable of. In the 2019 conference title game, Thibodeaux, then a true freshman, not only recorded 2.5 sacks (all of them coming in the fourth quarter) but he also blocked a punt in helping the Ducks coast to a 37-15 victory over Utah.
This season, he may only have six sacks and 11 tackles for a loss (he's missed two games because of injury), but he's the one defender on either team who is capable of taking over and singlehandedly impacting the outcome of a game. Just because he didn't have that sort of effect the first time these teams played doesn't mean he won't on Friday night.
4. Championship pedigree
Utah is 0-2 in Pac-12 Championship Games while Oregon is 4-0. The Ducks beat the Utes 37-15 for the title in 2019. Oregon followed that up with another championship last season (albeit under unusual circumstances due to the pandemic), so this team knows what is required to get the job done. Getting embarrassed by Utah the first time only serves as motivation for the Ducks, who want to show they are still the class of the conference.
5. Element of surprise is gone
Even if Utah was favored headed into the first matchup, few if any predicted that the Utes would thoroughly manhandle the Ducks like they did. Now comes the hard part — beating the same team twice in a two-week span. It's no secret as to why Oregon lost on Nov. 20 in Salt Lake City. Utah dominated the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball. The Utes racked up 208 rushing yards with four touchdowns while holding the Ducks to just 63 yards on 23 carries (2.7 ypc). It was by far the fewest rushing yards Oregon had in a game this season, the previous low being 121 in a 34-31 road win over UCLA on Oct. 23. Likewise, the Utes gashed the Ducks for their season-worst showing vs. the run (202 vs. Arizona on Sept. 25 the next highest).
But can they do it again? Oregon not only knows what to expect but the Ducks also know they must come out more aggressive and be more physical. The humiliating loss earlier only adds more fuel to Oregon's fire and in fact, you could make the argument that Utah, who is a slight favorite according to the oddsmakers, is under more pressure since the Utes have yet to win a Pac-12 title. Either way, it's a fairly safe bet to expect an entirely different performance from the Ducks on Friday night.
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