The battle on third down could determine who wins the Pac-12.
The Oregon Ducks were bounced from College Football Playoff contention two weeks ago, losing 38-7 to Utah in Salt Lake City.
Although they no longer have a shot at the most coveted prize in college football, the Ducks’ bounceback win against in-state rival Oregon State has them set to rematch the Utes for the Pac-12 championship and a bid to head coach Mario Cristobal’s second Rose Bowl in four years.
In order for Oregon to reverse the result from two weeks ago, change is needed across all fronts.
In order for the Ducks to flip the script against Utah, they’ll need to be more efficient on offense. Two weeks ago, the conference's No. 1 rushing offense was held to an abysmal 63 yards while only holding the ball for 24:33, compared to Utah’s 35:27.
“Game situations predicate a different approach in play calling,” offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead said. “We weren’t able to capitalize on opportunities in the red zone.”
After falling behind early, the Oregon offense had little opportunities to run the ball. The clock worked against them, and the lead grew, forcing the Ducks to air it out more often than planned to a young and inexperienced receiving corps.
“We got behind the sticks on some penalties; we weren’t as efficient on first down as we have been,” Cristobal said.
On the special teams front, the game was a disaster for the Ducks. An early first quarter Camden Lewis field goal was blocked, failing to bring the Ducks to 7-3. Lewis would go on to miss another field goal, his first true miss of the year. To end the first half the Ducks found themselves at fourth down, on their own 32 yard line, With 11 seconds to play in the half. They could’ve ran the ball and ended the half, but instead opting to throw Oregon left time on the clock for a Britain Covey 78-yard punt return touchdown which expanded the Utah lead to 28-0 in the final moments of the half.
On the defensive end, Oregon has a lot to improve on as well.
Tavion Thomas turned 21 carries into 94 yards of offensive production. A physical runner, Thomas bounced off tackles, perpetually falling forward to create favorable third downs for Kyle Whittingham's squad.
“We had way too many third down and shorts and third down and mediums,” Oregon defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter said. “It's an emphasis for us and something we have to fix this week.”
In order for the Ducks to be successful, they need to play a complete game on offense, defense and special teams. For the Ducks, it starts on the offensive end. Keeping the Oregon offense on the field not only gives the Ducks more chances to score, but also gives Kayvon Thibodeaux and the defense time to rest in between sets against the physical Utah offense.Utah dominated time of possession, holding the ball for 35: 27 to Oregon’s 24:33. Tight end Brent Kuithe gashed the Ducks defense for 118 yards on 5 receptions, repeatedly finding space in the middle of Oregon’s depleted defense.
“They extended a couple of drives with some third down scrambles,” Cristobal said. “Offensively we didn't do a good enough job of sustaining drives and giving our defense a chance to recover. That combination is not really a good one.”
In their last meeting, it was Oregon repeatedly working against third and long, converting on only 6-of-14 attempts while Utah drove the field steadily, converting on 11-of-14 third and manageable situations. This week, first and second downs will dictate who wins the Pac-12 championship.
Oregon and Utah meet Friday at 5 p.m. at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada.