Game matchups: Utah defense vs. Oregon offense

James Durrant breaks down the key matchups when Utah's defense and special teams are on the field

No. 12 Utah (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12) hosts Oregon (3-7, 1-6) in the final home game of the season for the Utes. While the Utes have plenty to play for as they are in the race for a division title, the Ducks secured their first losing season since 2004 with a loss to Stanford last week.

The Ducks are dealing with almost many off-field issues as on-field problems, starting with speculation that coach Mark Helfrich will be out of a job when the season comes to an end. Recent injuries to key players have depleted depth at several positions. Suspensions and dismissals have finished off what little depth Oregon had. In short, Oregon is in disarray, and players keep showing up in the news for the wrong reasons. Darren Carrington is under investigation for assault, though according to a story Thursday in the Register-Guard, no charges have been filed. This adds to the recent arrest of defensive tackle Austin Maloata and news of potential domestic violence issues with tight end Pharaoh Brown have only added to the problems Helfrich must deal with.

Oregon’s offense, while not as explosive as previous seasons, has put enough points on the board to win games. They don’t turn the ball over often (13 on the season, tied for third in the conference) and are scoring nearly 35 points per game in conference play. The Ducks are leading the conference in rushing again, and have led the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game and rushing touchdowns since the conference expanded in 2011. They also lead the conference with 66 plays that have gained 20 or more yards.

Oregon will feature three running backs, led by Royce Freeman. He leads the team with 129 carries, 710 yards and nine touchdowns. Freeman isn’t the same runner he was last year, as he seems to lack the explosiveness through the hole and isn’t breaking as many tackles. It sounds strange to say that someone averaging 5.5 yards per carry is running tentative, but it looks that way at times. Tony Brooks-James provides a nice change-of-pace to the 230-pounds Freeman, and at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, defenders can have a tough time finding Brooks-James before he explodes through the hole. He has carried the ball 83 times for 623 yards and eight touchdowns, and is a solid pass catcher as well. Kani Benoit will also rotate in and carry the football, netting 300 yards and three touchdowns on 50 carries this season.

Quarterback Justin Herbert took over the starting position mid-season, and has been solid in his five starts, throwing for 286 yards per game. He has struggled some in his two road starts, completing 54.7 percent of his passes and throwing for 210 yards per game, though he did toss six touchdown passes in his first road start against Cal. The true freshman is a little streaky and inconsistent, especially with his mechanics. He will at times throw the ball with an awkward side-arm motion that almost looks painful. He has a good arm and can throw a nice deep ball. He is a good but not great runner, and though he generally makes good decisions he can hesitate when the defense shows him something unexpected. He takes a lot of sacks, with 14 in his five starts; in four of those starts he was sacked three or more times.

At receiver the Ducks still have a great deal of speed and athleticism. Slot receiver Charles Nelson will be the fastest player on the field, and he leads the Ducks with 47 catches and 501 yards, adding four touchdowns. Darren Carrington starts on the outside and is second on the team with 35 catches and 493 yards, with three touchdowns. Oregon will use their tight ends more as receivers, as both Brown and Johnny Mundt are good athletes who can struggle blocking on the line-of-scrimmage. Brows leads the team with five touchdown catches, on 33 catches for 426 yards, though he is questionable for the game with an injury. Mundt has played in only six games due to injury, but he has caught 16 passes for 251 yards and four touchdowns in those games. Depth is a problem for the Ducks. Jalen Brown starts opposite Carrington, and has caught 12 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns, but he is the only other available receiver who has caught more than two passes this season.

Up front, Oregon starts four freshman and a senior, though junior Doug Brenner rotates in at left guard. There is no standout player on the offensive line, though senior right guard Cameron Hunt is by far the best of the bunch. As a unit, the line is solid especially run blocking. They will commit false starts, and other than Hunt each lineman struggles one-on-one as they lack strength. They will grab and hold when they get beat. On the positive side, each lineman moves well and can block in space, pull-and-lead, and pick up linebackers at the second level.

Utah Defense

Utah’s defense has been feast-or-famine at times this season, and perhaps no game demonstrated this better than their 49-26 win over Arizona State. The Utes recorded 11 sacks, 22 tackles for loss and two interceptions, but they also allowed eight plays of 20 or more yards, half of which went for 30 or more yards. Poor tackling in the secondary and at linebacker has plagued the Utes for most of the season, though they have turned in big plays to keep teams from scoring too often.

Up front, Utah’s defensive line has favorable matchup across the board, though Hunter Dimick, Filipo Mokofisi and Pita Taumoepenu need to keep Oregon’s backs from getting outside the tackles and into the secondary. Oregon will try to replicate the success teams have had running outside on the Utes, and they have the athletes to cause problems should they get to the second level.

Linebackers Sunia Tauteoli, Kavika Luafatasaga and Cody Barton seem to be slow to react to outside running plays, as they get caught inside where they are easily sealed by offensive linemen. When they do get outside and in position, they are often off-balance and can’t square-up ballcarries to deliver a clean tackle. Added pressure will be on the linebackers as they will have to pick up the tight ends in coverage.

In the secondary, Utah benefitted from the return of Marcus Williams. The corners played better and outside of a few plays tackled better because they had Williams behind them. Confidence in others cleaning up potential mistakes can make a difference, and the corners played a bit more aggressively against the Sun Devils. Tackling still needs to improve. Chase Hansen is the most improved player on the team over the course of the season, turning from a box safety with limited deep coverage skills to a safety that can play any role.

Edge: Even

Special Teams

Aiden Schneider is an excellent placekicker as long as he doesn’t have to kick from 40 or more yards. He’s a perfect 6-for-6 this season from inside 40 yards, but 1-for-3 from 40 or more, and hasn’t attempted a kick of more than 41 yards. This isn’t a new problem for Schneider, as his career long is 47 yards and he has been allowed to attempt only two kicks from more than 41 yards. Punter Ian Wheeler is average at best, averaging 37.5 yards per punt while netting a meager 34.7 yards per punt. His punts are often low, short line-drive punts that bounce before they reach the return man. On the plus side, kickoff specialist Matt Wogan is excellent, with 43 of his 67 kickoffs resulting in touchbacks.

Oregon’s coverage units are solid. Punt returners are averaging a high 9.2 yards per punt, but most of that is the fault of the punter. The Ducks are allowing 20.9 yards per kick return when Wogan doesn’t kick the ball out of the ndzone.

Charles Nelson is a dangerous return man, handling both kickoffs and punts. Teams try to kick away from Nelson on punts. When he does get a returnable punt, he is averaging 17.8 yards on six returns, with a long return of 45 yards. On kick returns, he is second in the conference averaging 26.2 yards per return, with a 100-yard return for a touchdown on the season.

Utah’s special teams held up well last week against a solid Arizona State unit, giving up 22 yards on five kick returns and not allowing a punt return. Mitch Wishnowsky has seemingly locked up the Ray Guy Award and will likely have a wire-to-wire lead in gross and net-punt average this season. His 45.3-yard net average is nearly two yards per punt more than second place. Andy Phillips didn’t have to attempt a field goal against the Sun Devils, and has made 14 of 17 kicks this season, 5-of-7 from 40 or more yards.

Coverage teams have been a bit shaky, though they have been tackling better. Utah allows 20.6 yards per kick return and 9.7 yards per punt return.

After a solid mid-season improvement blocking on kickoffs, the Utes fell back into some bad habits the last two games in not picking up coverage players and forcing the return man to evade multiple unblocked defenders. That might be a moot point this week, as Wogan at altitude is unlikely to give Cory Butler-Byrd or Kyle Fulks a chance to return kicks. Boobie Hobbs continues to be a liability on punt returns, and it is a little scary to think that Utah coaches feel he is the best option. 

Edge: Utah

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