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Utah Utes vs. Oregon Ducks Preview and Prediction

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The Pac-12 Conference has a pair of top-20 matchups kicking off within half-an-hour of each other. But while Arizona-UCLA draws national attention via ESPN's "College GameDay," the Oregon-Utah matchup flies somewhat under the radar.

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That could be because Oregon has won the last two encounters by at least three touchdowns. Don't put too much stock in past scores, however. Utah plays precisely the brand of football that traditionally gives the potent Oregon offense fits.

With the Ducks facing some question marks due to injury, the Utes just might be drawing the defending conference champions at the right time to score a monumental upset — maybe the biggest since Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011.

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Utah at Oregon

Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV: Fox
Spread:Oregon -11

Three Things to Watch

1. Quarterback Situations

Both Oregon and Utah find themselves with quarterback conundrums ahead of Week 4. Oregon's late-arriving transfer and initial starter, Vernon Adams, sustained a finger injury that forced Jeff Lockie into the lineup last week vs. Georgia State.

Utah's Travis Wilson came out of the first half of the Utes' Week 2 defeat of Utah State with a shoulder injury. Kendal Thompson was steady, if not unspectacular, in Utah's 45-24 win at Fresno State. He finished 19-of-25 with a touchdown and interception, primarily throwing short-to-intermediate routes.

Thompson has yet to demonstrate an arm capable of attacking a young Oregon secondary, which has sputtered in all three of the Ducks' initial contests. Wilson is practicing, but beat reporters in Salt Lake City write Kyle Whittingham has his lips sealed on the situation.

Likewise, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich never discusses injuries, and he certainly isn't divulging any information on the Adams-Lockie situation.

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2. Explosive Special Teams

Utah and Oregon feature arguably the two best special teams in the Pac-12, if not the nation. The Utes' return game surprisingly has not missed a beat without electrifying Kaelin Clay, as Britain Covey and Corey Butler-Byrd have filled the void expertly.

Kicker Andy Phillips gives Utah a great chance to notch three points the moment it crosses the 50-yard line, and punter Tom Hackett serves the extraordinary Ute defense well by pinning offenses deep in their own territory.

Were the quick-strike Oregon offense not enough of a headache, the Ducks have two dynamic returners who can set that offense up on short fields. Charles Nelson manned return duties nicely a year ago, and this season is rejoined by Bralon Addison.

Special teams play should be an interesting chess match Saturday, particularly when Hackett boots to either Addison or Nelson.

3. The Oregon Mid-Quarter Squeeze

In both 2013 and 2014, Utah was victim of a phenomenon most teams in the conference know all-too-well when playing Oregon. The Ducks have a knack for squeezing the life out of an opponent in either the second or third quarters, hitting them with a dizzying deluge that puts the game out of reach before the opponent can respond.

It's happened to Michigan State. It's happened to Florida State. In 2013, Utah saw a four-point gap erupt to 23 in a little more than nine minutes. Last season, the Ducks piled on 24 straight in 12 minutes after Utah led 7-0.

If the Utes can withstand a similar attempted barrage in the second and third quarters and go into the fourth with a chance to win, an upset is a very real possibility. The Ducks rarely lose multiple-score games; it's the close ones that trip them up.

If it's within a score in the final period, advantage Utah.

Final Analysis

Utah's been able to hang with Oregon early, and in short bursts. Ultimately, though, the Utes have lacked the firepower to keep pace, failing to sustain drives and keep the Ducks offense off the field.

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Without long scoring drives, a defense facing Oregon is doomed to wear down. Though the Utes feature one of the conference's best running backs in Devontae Booker, the passing game is not consistent enough to take advantage of Oregon's secondary deficiencies.

Utah may keep it closer than years past, by virtue of both this being Whittingham's best team since moving to the Pac-12 and Oregon still finding its identity. Ultimately, however, the Ducks should successfully defend Autzen Stadium.

Prediction: Oregon 35, Utah 24

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.