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Can Utah match its performance from the last time it played Oregon? Third downs could be telling

Through the first six games, the Utes were converting only 37% of their third-down attempts. Now, they are ranked No. 8 nationally in that department — converting 49% of the time on third down

Utah Utes safety Brandon McKinney tries to defend Oregon Ducks quarterback Anthony Brown.
Utah safety Brandon McKinney tries to defend Oregon quarterback Anthony Brown during game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. The two teams square off again Friday with the Pac-12 championship on the line.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In a 38-7 throttling of then-No. 3 Oregon on Nov. 20, Utah played a near-perfect game. The Utes punched the Ducks in the mouth and dominated from start to finish.

Certainly, it would be near-impossible for Utah to replicate that performance. But the Utes are going to try.

One of the many stats that revealed Utah’s dominance? The Utes converted 11 of 14 third-down attempts while limiting Oregon to 6 of 14 and 0 for 2 on fourth down.

Utah’s resurgence on offense this season can be partly attributed to success on third down.

Through the first six games, the Utes were converting only 37% of their third-down attempts. Now, they are ranked No. 8 nationally in that department — converting 49% of the time on third down.

As No. 17 Utah faces No. 10 Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game Friday (6 p.m. MST, ABC), what happens on third downs could play a major factor in the outcome.

Ute quarterback Cam Rising explained why there is such a big focus on third down.

“It’s just knowing that it’s a money down. It’s a down that you need. It’s a down that really matters in a game,” he said. “If you’re converting on third down, chances are you’re going to be up in the game. That’s why we make such an emphasis on that.”

Interestingly, in the 2019 Pac-12 title game between Utah and Oregon, a 37-15 victory for the Ducks, both teams converted on just 4 of 11 third-down attempts. But the Utes were 0 of 4 on fourth down.

Wide receiver Britain Covey credits offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig for dialing up successful plays on third down against Oregon and during the season.

He did a great job with the situational work, especially third downs. Our third-down conversion rate the second half of the season, compared to the first half, is one of the keys to success that we’ve had,” he said. “It’s attributed to coach Ludwig’s good play-calling on third down.

“I know we ran the ball a lot more in the second half but I’m glad that we didn’t back down and we didn’t just try to run the clock out and play conservative. We still were pushing forward and trying to win the game.”

Coach Kyle Whittingham also credits Ludwig and added that it’s important to be in “manageable” third-down situations, which means also calling good plays on first and second downs.

Utah’s success on third down has also led to improvement in the red zone. Against Oregon, the Utes were 5 of 5 in the red zone. Meanwhile, Utah rushed for 208 yards against the Ducks.

Running back Tavion Thomas, who has accumulated 978 yards and has scored 18 touchdowns this season, ran for 94 yards and three TDs against Oregon. Thomas is a bruising back that has elevated the Utes’ ground attack, particularly on third down and in the red zone. T.J. Pledger, Micah Bernard and Chris Curry are also physical runners.

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said Utah’s running backs are tough to slow down.

“You see a lot of times there might be a collision two yards off the line of scrimmage but it’s second and five or second and four because they run their feet in contact and they’re big guys,” he said. “Their O-line does a great job controlling the line of scrimmage, so there’s no penetration. They don’t stop their feet.

“Those running backs are coming full head of steam before they break the plane of the line of scrimmage and get into the second level of your defense. That’s when the issues happen.”

The Utes’ defense blanked Oregon (0 of 3) in the red zone and gave up only 63 yards rushing. Running back Travis Dye ran for 29 yards on six carries.

Cristobal acknowledged the challenges Utah’s defense poses.

“There’s a significant amount of pressure from Utah on first and second down, as well as third down,” Cristobal said. “Some great, exotic looks on third down that are hard to block.”

Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd, a Butkus Award finalist, said the defense also puts emphasis on third downs.

“It’s played a key role in our success. It’s kind of the standard. We expect that. We didn’t start off playing our best ball. But we’ve got guys stepping up and playing big,” he said. “I think we’re coming into ourselves as a defense. We’re playing amazing. I’m just looking forward to continuing to progress and continuing to make more plays as a team and getting even better.”

Certainly, the Ducks know that to win Friday, they have to control the lines of scrimmage. That’s something they failed to do a couple of weeks ago.

“They’re a big, physical, disciplined football team that plays hard. They play with physicality, violence, very assignment conscious, technique and fundamentally sound,” Cristobal said. “Explosive players on special teams, offense and defense. They create negative plays, issues in protection, just a really complete football team. Excellent football team.”

Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd readies for a play in during game against Colorado Friday, Nov. 26, 2021, in Salt Lake City.
George Frey, Associated Press

“Defensively, our biggest thing was owning the line of scrimmage,” Lloyd said. “We weren’t going to switch up our scheme or do anything special — we just played our ball, played Utah football to the best of our abilities. I’d say we accomplished that and (when) we do see them, we’ve got to do the same thing.”

Utah played a complete game against Oregon on offense, defense and special teams.

Not only did the Utes outgain the Ducks 386-294 in total offense, they blocked a field goal attempt and Covey produced a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown just before the end of the half.

“When we execute offense, defense and special teams, those are the results we get,” said defensive lineman Mika Tafua.

The Utes probably can’t play at the same level as they did on Nov. 20, but a fast start, like they had in the first game, would be important. Utah led 28-0 at halftime.

“That was one of the keys for us,” Whittingham said. “It’s always good to start fast. You’ve just got to fight through the adversity. It’s always a positive if you can get an early lead. Playing with a lead is a lot easier than playing from behind.”

For Rising, it’s important for his team to try to do the same thing that it did back on Nov. 20.

“We really want to hit them in the face from the get-go and make sure we set the tone early,” he said, “and let them know that we’re the same team that played them last time.”