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Can Utah slow down Travis Dye and Oregon’s prolific running attack?

Dye has filled a big void after C.J. Verdell went down with a season-ending injury in early October

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Oregon running back Travis Dye, wearing white, runs the ball

Oregon running back Travis Dye runs with the ball during an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Seattle. Oregon won 26-16.

Stephen Brashear, Associated Press

Both No. 3 Oregon and No. 23 Utah enjoy playing physical football. They both want to line up and run the ball. That’s part of their respective identities.

This season, the Ducks are ranked No. 10 nationally in rushing offense (227.4) while the Utes are No. 18 (214.5).

Utah, Oregon TV

Utes on the air


No. 3 Oregon (9-1, 6-1)

at No. 23 Utah (7-3, 6-1)

Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MST

Rice-Eccles Stadium

TV: ABC

Radio: ESPN 700


It’s likely that the team that wins the battle on the ground will win this huge Pac-12 showdown Saturday (5:30 p.m. MST, ABC) at Rice-Eccles Stadium. 

The Ducks boast an explosive offense that features dynamic running backs Travis Dye and Byron Cardwell Jr.

“This will be, obviously on paper, our biggest test of the year, said coach Kyle Whittingham of his team’s run defense. “We’ll see where we stand.”

The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Dye has rushed 152 times for 908 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s also caught 32 passes for 302 yards and a pair of TDs. 

“He’s a dual threat. He can run the football out of the backfield, he can catch it out of the backfield. He’s lightning quick,” said Whittingham. “He’s a weapon for them. He’s a good player. We always have to have him accounted for and understand that he can run routes out of the backfield. We need to make sure we have the coverage in place that can hopefully handle it.”

Dye has filled a big void after C.J. Verdell went down with a season-ending injury in early October. Verdell rushed for 161 yards and three touchdowns in an enormous win at Ohio State in September.

Of course, Dye, who averages almost 8 yards per carry, has been on Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley’s radar this week.

“That guy is as tough as they come. You talk about an old-school football player,” Scalley said of Dye. “His size is a big issue. He’s not that big so it’s tough to identify him through the gaps. He’s such a patient runner. Great balance, great vision, and tough as nails. He’s great catching the ball out of the backfield.”

“He’s a slasher. He’s a tough running back. He runs downhill,” Ute linebacker Devin Lloyd said of Dye. “They have a great O-line. He’s just a tough guy. He’s going to keep on going, he’s going to keep coming.”

In addition to Dye, Cardwell, a freshman, has run 41 times for 320 yards and three touchdowns. 

“The freshman kid is starting to hit his stride,” Whittingham said of Cardwell. “They certainly miss Verdell but everyone around the country has guys that they miss. They’ve done a great job of having guys step up and pick up the slack.”

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal likes what he’s seen from Cardwell this season.

“His eyes are just getting better and better. So he’s seeing things as the game slows down for him. He is running behind his pads too now more, so you see that physicality really starting to show on a more consistent basis. Ball security has improved,” Cristobal said. “Assignment-wise he’s been on point. ... He’s growing up fast. We always felt confident in him that he would. He invests a lot of time. He’s very serious about the game. He’s very serious about his development and he’s very serious about his teammates having success. So, all in all the invested time, the extra time is really paying off for him and we’re gonna need to keep developing at that level.”

Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown has completed 170 of 263 passes for 2,030 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. Brown has also rushed 109 times for 551 yards and eight touchdowns.

“The quarterback is an outstanding runner as well,” Whittingham said. “He’s one of the primary reasons why that running game is so successful.” 

At times this season the Utes have been solid against the run. But other times, it’s been a weakness — such as giving up 260 yards on the ground in a loss at Oregon State. Beaver running back B.J. Baylor ran for 152 yards against Utah. 

The last time the Utes played the Ducks, in the 2019 Pac-12 Championship game, Oregon ran for 239 yards in a 37-15 victory for the Ducks. Verdell rushed for 208 yards, including two long touchdown runs, in the fourth quarter. 

The Ducks have a lot of different personnel than they had two years ago but Scalley said their approach is the same.

“What hasn’t changed is their focus on running the football,” Scalley said. “They pride themselves in being physical just like we pride ourselves in being physical … There’s a lot of carryover from what they were doing.”

Utah, meanwhile, has stable of talented running backs. Tavion Thomas, who was held out during last week’s win at Arizona, has emerged as the Utes’ No. 1 back.

Thomas has rushed 122 times for 742 yards and 14 touchdowns. But Utah also has T.J. Pledger (69 carries, 502 yards, five touchdowns) and Micah Bernard (73 carries, 428 yards, two touchdowns). 

“That guy is as tough as they come. You talk about an old-school football player,” Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley on Travis Dye.

Cristobal is impressed with Utah’s run game but he’s confident in his defense.

“It starts with the guys up front. Very, very big, physical guys. Guys that do have experience. They finish their blocks. They play with really good technique. They’re big in the backfield as well. They’re hard to tackle,” he said. “Our front seven continues to get better. Our safeties and the way we run alleys and play run-support, have also improved. Again, it’s a great challenge. You’re playing against an excellent football team that has been really good for a long, long time. 

“A lot of it has been established at the line of scrimmage. I think a lot gets lost in the fact that there’s so much focus on that, that I think their quarterback, their running backs, their wide receivers (and) tight ends don’t get enough attention,” Cristobal added. “Those guys are really good players. They’ve made a lot of explosive plays. They’re extremely productive on the perimeter and I have to say that on defense they’ve been really effective on defending the perimeter as well. Their quarterback does a great job with his arm and his feet and controlling the offense. He just does a great job running it.”

Which team, Oregon or Utah, will be better at running the ball and stopping the run? The answer to that question could go a long way in determining Saturday’s winner.