Utah offense will need to “show up” to hit Ducks’ one weakness: defense


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For the first time since Utah joined the Pac-12, it welcomes Oregon to Rice-Eccles Stadium for a Saturday night contest.
The No. 4 Ducks come into Salt Lake City with one of the most explosive and balanced offenses in the country. They rank 16th in passing, averaging just over 305 yards per game, 25th in rushing with 228 yards per game and sixth in average scoring with just over 45 points per game. These are numbers Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham has been keeping his eye on and will need to diminish if the Utes want to pull off another top-5 stunner at home.
“They are a great football team and are very much deserving of their ranking, they might be even better than that,” Whittingham said. “They’re a very balanced team led by an exceptional quarterback. They’ve got a lot going for them right now, so we have a tough challenge ahead, but we’re at home, which helps our cause, and our guys are looking forward to the opportunity.”
Whittingham mentioned the ability of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who comes in Salt Lake as one of the front runners for the Heisman Trophy. Of all the “dual threat” quarterbacks in this league, Mariota is the most dangerous, the most explosive and, perhaps scariest of all, the most poised.
“He’s throwing the ball exceptionally well, he’s leading in efficiency, he’s completing nearly 70 percent of his passes, and in addition he’s lightning quick as a runner,” Whittingham said. “He’s a 4.5-40 guy, and he’s a guy that can pull it down and rip off 60 yards without blinking an eye. So you’ve got to be able to defend it all with him.”
Utah defensive end Hunter Dimick knows the speed and accuracy Mariota possesses from last year’s matchup in Eugene. He said the key to stopping Mariota is containment.
“Don’t let him out of the pocket,” Dimick said. “Keep him contained as much as you can. He’s pretty dang fast, so we have to do our best to keep him in the pocket, get him nervous, get him kind of squirrely with what he’s trying to do.”
It wouldn’t be too much of a problem for Dimick and the Utah defense to stop the Ducks if it were only Mariota they had to worry about, but as Dimick pointed out, they have speed all over the field.
“The biggest challenge is the speed, like it is every year,” Dimick said. “They turn what should be a two to three yard gain into a 60 or 70 yard run that goes to the house. From what I’ve seen, they’re probably the fastest team we’ll play.”
The Utah offense could certainly learn something from Mariota and the Oregon offense. The Utes’ passing struggles are one of the primary reasons Utah is not undefeated and not ranked inside the top-10 alongside Oregon. Whittingham knows the passing problems need to be solved if the Utes still want a chance at perhaps facing Oregon once more this season in the Pac-12 title game.
“If you had to determine one thing that’s really held us back this year, it’s the lack of production throwing the football,” Whittingham said. “We’re running the ball effectively, we’re taking care of the football, so we’re doing some good things, but you’ve got to be able to be balanced, and we’re not very balanced offensively right now.”
As in previous weeks, Whittingham has re-opened the quarterback competition between Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson for the starting nod on Saturday. Wilson remains the more dangerous passing threat between the two, and Thompson can keep plays alive with his feet, but whoever takes the field for the first offensive snap for Utah is going to need a lot more help from the receiving corps than they have received in recent games.
“We can’t always depend on Devontae [Booker] to get us 200 or 250 yards every game and expect to win,” said Ute receiver Kaelin Clay. “Us as a receiving group need to show up. There’s no excuse for that, but I believe that we will.”
The quarterback and receivers are going to have to show up against Oregon because the one real “weakness” of this Ducks team is on defense. Oregon only ranks 57th in points against, allowing nearly 25 points per game.
So the Utes have two tasks this Saturday. Step one: Stop or contain one of the country’s best quarterbacks and his bevy of speedy weapons. Step two: Score over 31 points with an out-of-sync offense that has been unable to do so since the second game of the season. Do that, and the Utes will have a grand ole’ time Saturday night.
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