8:00 PM EST, ABC – Line: Utah -2.5, Over/Under: 59.5
With the regular season finally coming to its conclusion, the postseason is now upon us with the Pac-12 Championship set to be decided tonight in Sin City, as the (No. 10) Oregon Ducks gear up for a rematch with the (No. 17) Utah Utes, who are looking to secure their first league title since joining the conference a decade ago. First up is Oregon (10-2, 7-2 in Pac-12), who are a win away from winning their third consecutive conference championship, all of which have come under (Head Coach) Mario Cristobal, who in turn has skyrocketed up the coaching ranks during that period of time. 35-12 (.745) in five years in Eugene, the 51-year-old has turned the Ducks back into the perennial power on the west coast, with his name sure to be linked with the myriad of coaching vacancies across the country. In the meantime, his charges are back in the Pac-12 Title Game after advancing there on a technicality a year ago; 4-3 in conference play, they ended up representing the North Division after its champion, Washington, was unable to make the trip to Los Angeles due to a rash of COVID-19 cases. Cristobal’s charges would take full advantage of the opportunity, besting the Trojans in a 31-24 affair at the Coliseum. This season there have been ZERO questions about their legitimacy, winning the North by a comfortable three games, setting up a rematch with Utah, who handed them one of their two losses, which was both their most recent and most harmful. Prior to their trip to Salt Lake City two weeks ago, Oregon was sitting at third in the College Football Playoff Rankings at a stellar 9-1 with their lone defeat coming in overtime at Stanford (31-24) back on October 2nd, but were ran off the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium in a 38-7 rout. That one was never close, folks, as the visitors found themselves down 28-0 at halftime thanks to a 21-point outburst courtesy of the hosts in the second quarter. The Ducks were relegated to season-lows in a number of categories, including points (7), total yards (294), and rushing yards (63), while giving up season-highs of thirty-eight points and 208 rushing yards. Falling behind early, the visitors could never establish the ground game, attempting just twenty-three rushes on the night, the fewest in any game this season. Neither (Junior Tailback) Travis Dye (178 CAR, 1,036 YDS, 5.8 Y/A, 14 TD) or (Senior Quarterback) Anthony Brown (132 CAR, 642 YDS, 4.9 Y/A, 9 TD) could muster much on the ground, rushing for a combined thirty-seven yards on fifteen carries, with the latter completing a miserable 17-of-35 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown. The defeat clearly left a mark on the CFP Committee, who dropped Oregon from their perch in the top-four to outside the top-ten for the first time since the opening week of the campaign. With their playoff dreams all but dissipated, they welcomed bitter rival, Oregon State, into Autzen Stadium for their annual meeting in the Civil War. No doubt stinging from their loss to the Utes, the Ducks came out with a strong sense of urgency, establishing an early 14-0 lead in the first quarter via 20-yard rushing touchdown from Dye and a 50-yard bomb from Brown to (Sophomore Receiver) Devon Williams (34 REC, 540 YDS, 15.9 Y/R, 4 TD), before heading into halftime up 24-3. After extending their lead to 31-9 early in the fourth quarter following another touchdown toss from Brown, the Beavers would catch fire late, cutting the deficit to ten before Dye would effectively end their threat with another late score. In the end, the hosts had indeed regained their rhythm en route to amassing 506 total yards, 231 of which came via the run on forty-one carries, with the tandem of Dye and Brown accounting for 182 yards and three touchdowns on thirty-four attempts. Brown was also an efficient 23-of-28 passes for 275 yards and two more scores, with Williams hauling in six receptions for 110 yards. Apart from taking their foot off the necks of the visitors late it was a solid performance from the Defense, which kept them out of the end zone until the second half and relinquished just eighty-five rushing yards on twenty-one carries. (All-American Defensive End) Kayvon Thibodeaux (46 TKL, 11 TFL, 6.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 PD) led the charge on this side of the football, racking up five tackles and one for loss, while (Redshirt Freshman Cornerback) Trikweze Bridges (15 TKL, 1 INT, 1 PD) captured the first interception of his collegiate career late in the second quarter. This was the kind of performance that they’ll need to bring to the table tonight against Utah, for whomever manages to establish the run game will be playing from a position of power; Oregon converted 10-of-13 third downs last weekend en route to possessing the football for a commanding 37:04, which was in stark contrast to their previous meeting with the Utes when they held the football for just 24:33 and were a miserable 6-of-16 on third and fourth down. Tonight’s encounter will not only serve as a rematch of that aforementioned defeat, but it will also serve as a rematch of the 2019 Pac-12 Championship Game, which the Ducks won in convincing fashion, 37-15. The North Division Champions rushed for 239 yards and three scores on forty-one attempts on that day, while the defense relegated the Utes to 309 total yards with a pair of takeaways, as Thibodeaux announced his arrival to the world with 2.5 sacks. Oregon leads the all-time series 23-11, winning five of eight since Utah joined the Pac-12 back in 2011.
Meanwhile, after a slow start to the campaign, Utah (9-3, 8-1 in Pac-12) finds themselves on the cusp of winning their first conference championship since joining the league a decade ago, and their first of any kind since 2008 as a member of the Mountain West Conference. Indeed, things started slowly for (Head Coach) Kyle Whittingham’s charges in 2021, stumbling to a 1-2 start with back-to-back road losses in the Holy War versus BYU (26-17) followed a narrow 33-31 defeat at San Diego State. However, they have since strung together eight victories in their last nine outings, thanks in large part to Whittingham making a crucial change at the game’s most important position: Quarterback. After an open competition during the Spring and Summer, (Senior) Charlie Brewer (60.8%, 484 YDS, 6.1 Y/A, 3 TD, 3 INT) earned the starting gig following his graduate transfer from Baylor, having started forty-one games for the Bears in which he amassed 10,739 yards and eighty-seven touchdowns in four years in Waco. With that said, Brewer struggled to find his footing in the early going with the Utes, completing 60.8% of hi attempts for an average of just 161.3 yards on 6.1 yards per attempt, with as many touchdowns as interceptions (3). About midway through that loss to the Aztecs, Whittingham made the decision to pull the grad transfer after going 14-of-26 for 104 yards and an interception, replacing him with (Sophomore) Cameron Rising (62.8%, 2,109 YDS, 7.7 Y/A, 17 TD, 3 INT), who immediately ignited a rally with 153 yards and three touchdowns on 19-of-32 passing, earning the favor of the coaching staff, his teammates, and the faithful in Sal Lake City. Of course, Rising would have entered this season as the starter had he not suffered a season-ending shoulder injury early in last year’s season opener, and it appears that his time on the sidelines has done wonders for his play on the field; he has completed 62.8% of his passes for 2,109 yards on a healthy 7.7 yards per attempt with seventeen touchdowns in comparison to three interceptions, while rushing for another 346 yards and five scores on fifty-four attempts. With ten starters returning on the offensive side of the football, it appears that this kid is a much better fit simply from a continuity perspective, and certainly a better fit than Brewer; the offense has averaged 37.2 points per game on 455.2 total yards, including a robust 241.1 via the run in the nine games that he has started, which is in stark contrast the 29.3 points on 372.3 total yards in the three games prior to his elevation. Furthermore, Utah committed five turnovers in those first three outings opposed to seven in the nine that have followed. Then again, running the football as successfully as they have been doing during this stretch has had an awful lot to do with their current form, for the Utes have churned out 218.4 rushing yards on a healthy 5.7 yards per carry on the year, with four different players totaling over 340 yards on the ground. Apart from Rising’s exploits in this department, (Redshirt Sophomore) Tavion Thomas (168 CAR, 978 YDS, 5.8 Y/A, 18 TD) has emerged as RB1 in a backfield loaded with talented transfers; Whittingham hit the transfer portal hard during the offseason, with the former Cincinnati Bearcat leading the team with 978 rushing yards and a school-record eighteen touchdowns. (Junior) T.J. Pledger (92 CAR, 651 YDS, 7.1 Y/A, 5 TD), a transfer from Oklahoma, has added another 651 yards and five scores, while (Redshirt Sophomore) Micah Bernard (78 CAR, 454 YDS, 5.8 Y/A, 2 TD) has managed 454 yards and a pair of touchdowns of his own, while also factoring into the passing game with twenty-four receptions for 236 yards and another score. All three of these guys got into the action during that aforementioned 38-7 drubbing of Oregon at Rice-Eccles Stadium two weeks ago, as the home side trampled the opposition on the ground to the tune of 208 yards and four touchdowns on FIFTY carries, possessing the football for a whopping 35:27. Thomas led the way with ninety-four yards and three touchdowns on twenty-one carries, while Pledger and Bernard added forty-six and twenty-six respectively, with Rising rushing for a touchdown late int he first half. This one was decided early with the hosts racing out to a 14-0 lead before adding another fourteen points in the final twenty-seven seconds before intermission. Rising went just 10-of-18 passing for 178 yards, though his biggest play was a 49-yard catch and run courtesy of (Junior Tight End) Brant Kuithe (43 REC, 522 YDS, 12.1 Y/R, 6 TD) to set up Thomas’ second score of the day and break the affair wide open before halftime. Defensively, Utah was dominant, permitting 294 total yards, including a paltry sixty-three of the rushing variety, with six tackles for loss and three sacks. Once again, the defense has been the strength for the Utes, who have yielded just 20.2 points on 334.7 total yards over the last nine games, forcing eight turnovers despite failing to register a single takeaway in three straight contests. (Redshirt Junior) Devin Lloyd (100 TKL, 22 TFL, 7.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 3 INT, 6 PD, 1 TD) has been arguably the most productive Linebacker in the country, leading the Pac-12 in tackles for loss (22), while ranking second in sacks (7) and interceptions (3), making plays all over the field. A Butkus Award finalist a year ago, it’s difficult to find a more deserving candidate, who has been the heart and soul of the Utes’ defense for three years now. As a unit, they’ve been one of the most disruptive in the country, particularly behind the line of scrimmage where they’ve accounted for a total of NINTEY-TWO tackles for loss and thirty-seven sacks, with nine different players logging at least four tackles for loss. In his eighteen years leading the program, Whittingham has certainly developed a brand built on toughness and defense, proving that they could indeed make a successful leap to a bigger conference solely on the strength of their mental toughness, for you would be hard-pressed to find a more physical team within the Pac-12 than this team. Needless to say, finally winning the league would be quite the feather in the cap of the 62-year-old.