What a difference a week, and a win, can make.
At this time last week, Oregon was reeling from a two-game losing streak and an offense that was almost non-existent.
Then UCLA came to town and everything was made better. The Ducks should send Chip Kelly a thank you note.
Oregon managed to defeat the Bruins 42-21 to improve to 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the Pac-12 North. Now the Ducks fly to Utah (2:30 pm, Pac-12 Network) to face a beaten and battered Utes team.
Utah is also 6-3 overall, but 4-3 in the Pac-12 South and tied with USC for first place in the division. They are also coming off a huge 38-20 loss at Arizona State.
Not only did the Utes lose the game, they lost their starting quarterback Tyler Huntley to a broken collarbone. Then on Wednesday, starting tailback Zack Moss suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice.
Replacing Huntley is true freshman Jason Shelley, a 5-11, 195-pounder from Little Elm, Texas. He had appeared in just three games and attempted two passes before he came into the second half of last week’s ASU game. Shelley was 4-of-11 for 59 yards.
But Shelley is far from a wide-eyed walk-on who is now thrown to the wolves. He was ranked 12th nationally among dual-threat quarterbacks by 247Sports and 27th by ESPN. In his senior year, Shelley passed for 2,975 yards (195-of-306) and 24 touchdowns (4 INT), while rushing 180 times for 629 yards and 20 touchdowns.
“We have seen him play before and he’s a very talented guy,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said of Utah’s new signal caller. “He’s does it both with his arm and his feet. They also have some other guys who have played quarterback before, so we’re preparing for all of that and more.”
Losing Moss might turn out to be the bigger blow, however.
The 5-10, 215-pound junior was the third-leading rusher in the conference with 1,092 yards and 11 touchdowns. Moss also gained six yards per carry. Beyond the stats, Moss might have provided Shelley a security blanket in tough situations.
Utah averages 202 yards on the grounds mainly because of Moss. Now he’s gone.
Replacing Moss should be junior Armand Shyne, a 5-11, 210-pounder from Oakland. Although a junior, Shyne doesn’t have much experience. He redshirted the 2017 season because of injury and as a freshman in 2016, Shyne played in just five games before sustaining a knee injury.
Despite using a backup quarterback, Utah might throw it more than usual with Moss out. Shelley will look towards Britain Covey and Samson Nacua. Covey leads the team with 50 catches and 555 yards, but has just one touchdown. Nacua has 25 catches for 306 yards and three scores.
Thankfully for the Utes, they have a top-notch defense to keep them in the game as the offense is expected to struggle.
Utah is second in the conference in total defense giving up 315 yards per game, just two more yards than Pac-12 leader Washington and they give up just 19 points a game.
“With Utah, it starts and ends with their physicality on both sides of the ball. By the truckload up front, they have some big, powerful guys that sets the tone for the game,” Cristobal said.
That defense features two of the top linebackers in the country with Chase Hansen and Cody Barton. Hanson leads the team with 75 tackles, but Barton isn’t far behind with 72 tackles. Hanson also has 15.5 tackles for loss, which is second in the conference. Defensive end Bradlee Anae is third in the Pac-12 with six sacks.
“They don’t miss tackles. These guys play with great balance,” Cristobal said. “It all starts up front. Their defensive line does a good job of controlling the line of scrimmage. They diagnose so quickly. There’s no hesitation in their game.”
On paper, this looks to be a defensive struggle where one or two plays make the difference. But when the Ducks go to Utah, it seems like those one or two plays are of the weird variety.
In 2014, the game took a turn when Kaelin Clay decided to drop the football short of the goal line and the entire Utes team stood there and watched Oregon’s Joe Walker pick it up and go 100 yards in the other direction.
In 2016, Justin Herbert found Darren Carrington in the corner of the end zone where the Oregon wide receiver took the ball away from Utah defensive back Brian Allen. What then proceeded was perhaps the longest review in Pac-12 history before ruling it a touchdown and a Duck victory.
The weirdness isn’t only in Salt Lake City. Oregon won easily 41-20, but backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister threw just 11 times for 47 yards.
Without their starting quarterback and tailback, Utah might hope weird comes into play. Oregon is hoping for a conventional game that leads to a conventional win, setting up a huge game with the Sun Devils next week at Autzen.
~ Don Smalley
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