STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/GAME BREAKDOWN
Key Matchup:Oregon Rush Defense vs. Utah Rush Offense
It’s the best against the best when Oregon’s rush defense meets Utah’s rush offense in the trenches. Both teams pride themselves on being a combination of strength and athleticism, units that can dominate a game based on their physicality at the line of scrimmage.
Because of that, the winner of this battle has the better chance of leaving Saturday night with the much-needed win.
For Oregon, it all starts with sophomore nose tackle Jordon Scott, a 6-foot-1, 329-pound behemoth in the middle. Despite his size, Scott shows tremendous athleticism with incredible first-step quickness and power, often driving opposing centers or guards back behind the line of scrimmage.
Although he doesn’t get the stats, Scott’s play is noticed and respected by his teammates and opponents. Because of his dominance, teams are forced to double-team Scott, setting up defensive ends Austin Failou, Jalen Jelks and others.
Jelks is the big-name star on the line, a potential first-or-second round draft pick in the upcoming NFL draft. At 6-foot-6, 245-pounds, Jelks is a combination of strength and speed that has led to him pestering offensive lines all season. He has 45 tackles on the season, 6.5 for loss with three sacks.
Doing the job on the outside are Lamar Winston Jr. and Justin Hollins, two players who serve vastly different purposes in passing defense but set the edge in physical ways to stop the run. Because of their ability to shed blocks and set the edge, it forces ball carriers back inside to waiting teammates, such as linebacker Troy Dye.
The heart and soul of the defense, Dye is an athletic freak who does a phenomenal job of diagnosing offenses and making plays. He’s recorded double-digit tackles the past five games, averaging 11 in the process.
What makes Oregon good at stopping the run is that they’re a unit predicated on the success of each other. If each player does his job, the unit is a force. But if one player fails, it has a domino effect on the rest that leads to a crumbling unit in the trenches.
Trying to make that unit crumble will be a Utah unit without running back Zack Moss, the Pac-12’s third-leading rusher at 121.3 yards per game. Moss got hurt in practice on Wednesday and team officials fear his season may be over.
“The bottom line is that Zack is so tough and physical, quick and fast, he is just the entire package,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said.
“He's an NFL guy… He is a big, physical and I know he's a downhill guy, but he'll put a foot in the ground, make you miss and bounce that thing outside and outrun the defense,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal added of Moss. “He's a combination that's probably the most difficult to defend because he'll run through you and he'll run around you.”
The Utes will go with a running back-by-committee approach now. But, the offensive line is still one of the best in the conference. Utah averages 202 yards on 41.7 rushing attempts per game, numbers that rank among the best in the Pac-12 — all behind an offensive line known for being physical and overpowering at the point of attack.
“The offensive line, they do a tremendous job getting push and knocking people back — they were averaging 40-plus points a game for about three or four games straight,” Cristobal said of Utah’s offense. “They were mixing it up well; they were using tempo, they were unbalanced formations and we don't expect that to change.”
The wildcard is quarterback Jason Shelley, a freshman dual-threat quarterback who’s making his first career start in place of the injured Tyler Huntley.
Shelley is very comfortable in Utah’s spread offense, having run a very similar one in high school. While unproven as a passer, Shelley does have nine carries for 47 yards on the season, proving to be a threat on the ground.
“He has a very calm demeanor about him… nothing really gets him flustered,” Whittingham said of Shelley. “This is his element, the spread offense. We are excited to see what he can do — We will have a full week of getting him the No. 1 reps and see what happens... we have a lot of confidence in him."