‘November is for champions’: Can No. 10 Utah stay in Pac-12 race against No. 12 Oregon?
Though the Utes, the defending league champs, have dealt with injuries at key positions, they might be peaking at the right time
EUGENE, Ore. — For No. 10 Utah, the path to another Pac-12 championship runs through Autzen Stadium.
The Utes, who some counted out of the Pac-12 race after a loss at UCLA on Oct. 8, visit No. 12 Oregon Saturday (8:30 p.m. MST, ESPN).
“We’ve been waiting for this game. Obviously, every week has been important and we’ve had to win but this is the one, man. We’ve got to dot our I’s and cross our T’s and make sure we come to play.” — Utah Karene Reid
Utah (8-2, 6-1) needs to win two more games — against the Ducks (8-2, 6-1) and next week at Colorado — to clinch a spot in the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas on Dec. 2.
“We’ve got to get through (Oregon) to get to the Pac-12 championship. That’s our goal. We’ve just got to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to be ready for this week,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “It’s our Super Bowl. We’ve got to go out there and execute. It’s a good football team and we’ve got to make sure that our preparation is where it needs to be and at a high level and doing everything we can to be ready to go.”
Meanwhile, two other Pac-12 contenders No. 7 USC and No. 16 UCLA square off in Los Angeles Saturday.
Wide receiver Devaughn Vele outlined what’s at stake Saturday.
“This will make or break whether we go to the championship or not. It’s plain and simple. There’s no other way to put it,” he said. “They’re a very good football team. They took a tough loss against Washington. We have the film in front of us of what the recipe is for us to get that win.
“We’ve got to make sure we execute and stick to the game plan that the coaches are giving us,” he continued. “We have to play with passion and believe in ourselves that we can accomplish this because we know we can. It’s going to be tough going into a hostile environment. We understand what’s at stake.
“This is what we train for. This is what fall camp is for. This is what the whole season is for. November is for champions. We have to accomplish that to make it back to the Pac-12 championship.”
Though the Utes, the defending league champs, have dealt with injuries at key positions, they might be peaking at the right time.
Coach Kyle Whittingham guided Utah to two wins over Oregon last year. Could that track record help this season?
“All of the players that experienced that last year, certainly it’s a benefit for them. … We’ve had our backs to the wall ever since UCLA and every single game has been a pressure game. That’s what you want to play in. If you’re not playing pressure games, that means you’re irrelevant. You don’t want to be irrelevant,” he said. “You want your back to be against the wall or each game mattering and critical, which is the situation we’re in.
“We welcome that. Our guys have handled that very well the last (four) games since UCLA. That’s something that we don’t look at as anything but a big positive. There’s a reason it’s a pressure game, and a big game, because you’ve earned that right to have it be that.”
Linebacker Karene Reid remembers that Pac-12 championship game a year ago, when the Utes throttled the Ducks 38-10.
“It was crazy to see us start fast and then keep our foot on the gas the whole time,” he said. “I know Oregon remembers those games. We’ll come out and try to hit them early.”
Left tackle Braeden Daniels knows the Ducks will be fired up.
“They’re going to want revenge. We did beat them twice and it was a great feeling. But this is a new year for us. This is a different team. This is not the same team as last year,” he said. “We have prepare like each game is a championship game. We’re getting ready for the Super Bowl. It’s going to be a great challenge for us up front. We have to own the line of scrimmage and we have to win in the trenches.”
While Oregon’s offense is in the top 10 nationally in scoring, total offense and rushing, the Duck defense has been vulnerable — particularly last week in a home loss to Washington. The Huskies rolled up 522 yards of offense, including 408 yards through the air.
“I’ve got belief in our coaches and players,” said Oregon coach Dan Lanning. “What’s the hard truth? We’re not playing well on defense.”
The Utes are hoping that tight end Dalton Kincaid, who has been dealing with an injury, can be closer to full strength Saturday.
“He came out well. He didn’t play a whole lot,” Whittingham said about Kincaid’s play in a 42-7 win over Stanford last week. “When he did play, it was more of a receiving threat. We didn’t ask him to do a lot of blocking. He’s still not 100%. He’s got some soreness. But he’s a lot further ahead today than he was last week.”
Meanwhile, running back Tavion Thomas rushed for a career-high 180 yards and two touchdowns last week after not contributing significantly for the previous few games.
“I can’t see (Thomas) not being a big part of what we do (Saturday),” Whittingham said. “He’s coming off one of his best performances and was very productive for us, to say the least. That’s an understatement. Hopefully, we get more of the same this week.”
Running back Micah Bernard is trying not to hype up this matchup with Oregon. He said that’s why the Utes were so successful against the Ducks last year.
“This game is another game for us. Every game is just another game. We’ll go in preparing the same way we’ve done all season long. We’re not going to change a single thing,” he said. “We’re just going to play our game and get the results that we’re hoping for.
“Everybody wants to paint the picture that this game is this, this and this. But it’s just another game,” he continued. “You’ve got to focus on it like that rather than getting overhyped over another game that’s a regular game.”
But one of the differences this year is that Oregon is playing at home, where it had won 23 consecutive games before last week’s setback against Washington. Now, the Ducks are trying to avoid two straight losses at home.
The Utes know what’s on the line Saturday.
“We’ve been waiting for this game,” Reid said. “Obviously, every week has been important and we’ve had to win but this is the one, man. We’ve got to dot our I’s and cross our T’s and make sure we come to play.”
Utes on the air
No. 10 Utah (8-2, 6-1)
at No. 12 Oregon (8-2, 6-1)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700