Is this the year Utah, and the South Division, rise up and win the Pac-12 title?
The Pac-12 North owns a 9-1 record against the South in the title game. Oregon is 4-0 in the championship game
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has been in this situation before.
This season, he’s guided the No. 19 Utes to their third Pac-12 championship game in four years as they face No. 11 Oregon Friday (6 p.m. MST, ABC) at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
Utes on the air
No. 10 Oregon (10-2 , 7-2)
vs. No. 17 Utah (9-3, 8-1)
Friday, 6 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700
The last time Utah played in this game, in 2019, it fell to the Ducks, 37-15.
There’s not much to draw from that contest, or the 2018 game — when Washington defeated the Utes, 10-3 — that can be applied to this one against Oregon, according to Whittingham.
“We only have a handful of guys that were in those games. Nothing other than we need to play better than we did in those two years,” he said. “In 2018, we played really good defense and we didn’t give up a touchdown — it was a pick-six and a field goal. It was 10-3. We didn’t play particularly well on either side of the ball in ’19 and we got beat pretty soundly.”
In the history of the Pac-12 title game, which debuted in 2011, the Pac-12 South has only won once — in 2017, when USC knocked off Stanford. The Pac-12 North boasts a 9-1 record against the South.
The Ducks are 4-0 in the Pac-12 championship game, including last year’s victory over USC. This marks Oregon’s third consecutive appearance in this contest.
The key to winning this championship game, Whittingham said, is to prepare like it has all season long.
“There’s nothing special that we do this week, although the intensity and the emotion and all that is much higher,” he said. “As far as the mechanics and how we prepare doesn’t change.”
This matchup is somewhat unusual in the fact that the two programs played so recently. On Nov. 20, Utah smashed Oregon 38-7 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
“It’s a little bit different, playing the same team twice in a 13-day period. But that’s how it goes,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got to get ourselves ready again for a very good Oregon Duck team.”
Will there be adjustments to the Utes’ game plan from the first meeting?
“No major overhauls. But you do tweak some things and make some subtle adjustments here and there,” Whittingham said. “Not a lot has changed for either team in nine days. Really, it’s the execution and the energy is more critical than any minor schematic adjustments you might make.”
Utah completely dominated in all three phases of the game against Oregon a couple of weeks ago. The Utes played a near-perfect game while the Ducks could do almost nothing right.
Whittingham understands that his team can’t take too much comfort from that performance.
“One thing’s for certain — we made a bunch of plays in that game a couple of weeks ago that don’t mean squat right now. They’re not going to have any impact on this game,” he said. “So we’ve got to go out and make plays. That’s what it always comes down to, is making plays. Not one play we made in the last two weeks ago will count in this game so we’ve got to go out and make some new ones.”
One big difference from the game in Salt Lake City is the Ducks will be looking to avenge that embarrassing loss.
“We’ve got to take care of ourselves. We can’t control (Oregon’s) mentality, what they’re going to come in with,” Whittingham said. “But if we have that same mentality that we had the first time around and that same look in their eye and that same determination and that same attitude of not-to-be-denied, we have a good chance. So that’s our focus on how we approach the game. I’m sure they’re going to be in a pretty good mindset as well. It’s a big game.”
While Oregon ran for just 63 yards against Utah the first time, it rushed for 231 in last Saturday’s victory over Oregon State.
“They ran the football effectively. They got a bunch of yards rushing. The quarterback was outstanding,” Whittingham said. “They didn’t turn the ball over and they had 500 yards of total offense. They were hitting on all cylinders offensively in that game and really controlled it throughout.”
Meanwhile, over the weekend, there was bombshell news coming out of the conference with USC’s hiring of Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley.
What was Whittingham’s reaction to a Pac-12 South rival hiring a new coach?
“No reaction, really. He has a big name, obviously. He’s done very well at Oklahoma,” he said. “He’s a great offensive coach. But we’re so absorbed in what we’re doing right now that we’ll concern ourselves with that later on. It certainly was a splash hire.”