It is a virtual elimination game Saturday when No. 8 Oregon faces No. 13 Utah in Salt Lake City.
Both teams are 6-1 overall and 3-1 in the Pac-12. The team that loses falls out of national championship consideration.
“Big game in the conference picture,” Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said his Monday news conference. “They’re a one-loss team, as are we. Both our backs are to the wall. Hopefully it will be a great football game.”
Utah’s lone blemish is a 21-7 defeat at then-No. 19 Oregon State on Sept. 29. The Ducks lost 36-33 at then-No. 7 Washington in a battle of unbeatens on Oct. 14.
Oregon coach Dan Lanning shares Whittingham’s view that it’s a must-win game.
“This is gonna be a fun opponent,” Lanning said at his Monday news conference. “A really good team, extremely well coached. They’ve done a phenomenal job of utilizing their personnel and have some really talented players on their team.”
The Ducks have more firepower with an offense that ranks second nationally in scoring (47 points per game) and total offense (551.6 yards per game).
Oregon also features standout quarterback Bo Nix, who made his NCAA-record 54th career start at quarterback last week in the Ducks’ 38-24 home win over Washington State. Five other quarterbacks shared the record at 53 (though current Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman is in that group.)
Nix has passed for 2,089 yards, 19 touchdowns and one interception this season. That pick is the lone turnover committed by the Ducks, who have the fewest in the nation. Utah is tied for third with just four turnovers.
The Utes rank 96th in scoring (23.4 ppg) and 98th in total offense (345.0 ypg), but the attack has been spruced up by having standout safety Sione Vaki (tied for the team lead with 35 tackles) play on both sides of the ball.
Vaki caught two touchdown passes and had 217 offensive yards last week in Utah’s 34-32 road victory over then-No. 18 Southern California. He caught five passes for 149 yards and rushed nine times for 68 more.
“It’s been a big plus for our offense to say the least to have him over there,” Whittington said. “The impact he makes on offense is actually bigger than the impact he has on defense. And he’s one of the best safeties in the country, so that tells you how valuable he has been for us.”
Utes quarterback Bryson Barnes had career bests of 235 yards and three touchdowns against USC but also threw an interception that was returned for a score. He also rushed for a touchdown.
Barnes will continue to run the show after the weekend news that standout Cam Rising won’t play this season. Rising sustained a serious knee injury in the Rose Bowl against Penn State on Jan. 2.
Utah ranks 11th in scoring defense (15.0 ppg) and 14th in total defense (295.4 ypg) but can’t just worry about stopping Nix.
The fifth-ranked run defense (78.0 ypg) will look to lasso Ducks running back Bucky Irving (649 rushing yards) for the second straight season. Irving had just 20 yards on 10 carries in Oregon’s 20-17 home win over the Utes last season.
Irving accounted for three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) and ran for a season-best 129 yards against Washington State. One week earlier, he rushed for 127 yards against Washington.
“I would say his heart is pounding out of his chest. This dude is so passionate, he cares so much for his teammates and never goes down on first contact,” Lanning said of Irving’s running style. “Really selfless player, and I think that really shows up when you see this guy play on the field.”
Oregon has won 10 of the past 15 meetings with the Utes.