I love games like this.
Two talented teams with a ton on the line. The higher ranked being tested on the road against an explosive team yearning to be make a statement.
On national TV.
This is a huge game for Utah and really their last big test prior to what figurest to be a very compelling conference title chase.
A big win on the road against a top tier Pac-10 team would significantly bolster the Utes' BCS creds, boost rankings and almost assuredly move them ahead of Boise State in the BCS buster discussion.
More importantly, it will say a lot about this Utah team and its identity following last year's Cinderella season.
On the flip side, the Ducks will be hungry. They are just one big-game win away from recovering the 2009 season and wiping the nightmare in Boise off of their minds.
Utah has a big name, a solid ranking and a stellar reputation, but thus far have appeared very average in their first two games
The Ducks may be catching the Utes at just the right time. Utah is still breaking in a new QB and several new offensive starters, a factor that could come into play in a place like Autzen Stadium.
Expect the Ducks to be aggressive defensively. Mixing things up and trying to confuse Utah's new starter QB Terrance Cain.
I would also expect Oregon to look downfield, take advantage of their remarkable speed and try to exploit Utah's two new corners, R.J. Stanford and Brandon Burton.
Both of whom struggled immensely last week at San Jose State.
1. Don't fall behind
I know that's easier said then done. Last year's miracle Utes came alive when opponents took the lead. It's easier to do that with a fifth-year senior QB, three senior WR's and an All-American kicker.
The jury's still out on how this team will respond in the face of adversity. But it's better not to find it out all. Especially in a place like Eugene, OR.
Autzen is a nasty place for a road team to play. Loud, rowdy and obnoxious.
The true strength of this Ute offense is its balance. They can run with power using Matt Asiata (I'm thinking he will play), engage with speed on the outside with Eddie Wide or run the option with Cain, who has looked phenomenal running the ball.
Thus far, the balance and consistency of the running game has helped Utah open lanes for their talented receivers. Cain has been terrific distributing the ball, and finding the mismatches, particularly on the underneath routes.
A strong running presence will keep the spread in full force and provide the open lanes Ute wideouts will need to make big plays.
Falling behind could erase that entirely. It would force Utah to be one-dimensional offensively and ultimately force Terrance Cain to win with his arm. On the road. Against a fast and hungry defense.
I have faith that Cain has the ability to do it. But it's better to avoid it altogether. Plus, he really hasn't proven he could beat defenses with the deep ball.
And if Utah becomes one-dimensional, favoring the pass, they'll have to be multi-faceted in the passing game.
Meaning Cain would have to go downfield and succeed, or the Ducks will focus on taking out the underneath game and likely force turnovers. At that point, it's game over.
Quick note: I'm betting the Ducks will be aggressive up front. Bringing the safeties in to stuff the run, pressure the new QB and stunt the short routes. From what Cain has shown, if I'm Nick Aliotti (Oregon defensive coordinator) I'll take that bet all day and leave the downfield open.
2. Stop the run
There is a reason why Blount was frustrated following the Boise State charade.
He had been stuffed all night.
Interestingly enough, once the Broncos started to shut down the run, Chip Kelly seemed overanxious to abandon it, altogether. He lost patience in his play-calling. As a result Masoli was throwing the ball much more than he should have.
Utah could do the same. As sloppily as Utah played last week, the Utes' D-line still obliterated the run, holding the Spartans to 22 yards on 22 carries.
Stopping the run and forcing offenses to become one-dimensional has proven well for Utah. Especially in big games last year.
Once Utah took a strong lead against BYU in the 2008 Holy War, it forced the Cougars to abandon the run and play come back. From there Utah destroyed BYU quarterback Max Hall, forcing four turnovers in the second half.
The Sugar Bowl was very similar. The Utes cheated a bit, stuffing the box and using the corners to man up, and shut down a team know for its dominant running game.
Ultimately forcing the Tide to be off-balance and predictable.
The Utes defense can be vulnerable against a balanced offense that keeps them guessing. Conversely, Utah's defense is lethal when they know what their opponent is going to do.
Stop the run. Force Masoli to throw or beat with you with his legs.
3. Convert in the Red Zone
Red Zone efficiency will be crucial for Utah. For a number of reasons.
One, it will be loud. When the Utes offense lines up in the zone, it will be even louder, which has false start written all over it.
In addition, Utah will either be breaking in a new kicker or sticking with Ben Vroman who may or may not be playing with total confidence. And don't expect the crowd in Eugene to help Vroman with any confidence issues.
(By the way, I'm not that down on Vroman. Yes, his field goal attempts were ugly last week. But his first two were from 50+ yards. That's tough to do, especially on the road.)
Second, the Utes have now lost two goal line stands against both Utah State and San Jose State. Two teams with supposedly inferior lines. This cannot happen against a team as hungry, as talented, and as explosive as Oregon.
I would guess that Dave Schramm (Utah offensive coordinator) will mix up the offense more on the goal line instead of relying entirely on the Asiata Formation.
4. Turnovers / Penalties
The Utes have been losing the turnover battle. Consequently, their first two games were much closer then they probably should've been.
While Cain has done a great job limiting turnovers (only one pick, and that came off a tipped ball) the Utes have had troubles holding onto the football.
Conversely, the Utes have created very few turnovers. Which is in part why the offense has put up gaudy statistics but few scores.
Especially last week. They just didn't have any short field opportunities.
The Oregon defense spent plenty of time last week dancing in the end zone, demonstrating their prowess for the big play. The Utes cannot afford to give the Oregon offense any short field opportunities.
Penalties have always plagued Utah. Maybe it's their aggressive play or maybe the BCS gods just have it out for the Crimson. Either way, Utah can ill-afford to have a repeat of last week's eleven-flag performance.
Especially in coverage. Utah got hit with four pass interference calls last week. The poor play in the secondary thus far will undoubtedly invite the Duck offense to test it by going vertical.
If the Ducks can force the secondary to commit penalties, soften up the defense and succeed with the deep ball, they'll be running the ball all day.
5. Stay put
The Ute defense knows how to make big plays. With that comes to the tendency to overplay and to miss assignments. Especially when the assignment is staying put and plugging a hole.
Jeremiah Masoli is a playmaker. He is the ultimate dual threat. He can take off and run for huge yardage at any time. He can draw back and distribute the ball or more dangerously he can fake the run, offset the secondary and find open receivers down field.
That would in-turn open up the run game for Oregon's LaMicheal James, who looks terrific. His 7.1 yards per carry are spectacular.
Utah defense cannot slow this offense if it can't pressure the QB. Masoli has to be under fire while in the pocket.
Undoubtedly he will run and make plays, especially if he can evade the pass rush, but if the Utes are disciplined and follow through with assignments, he won't have far to go.
That said, one of the best ways to keep this offense in front of them is to get the Ducks down at first contact.
A key contributor for Utah's victory over Alabama so handily why the rest of the SEC struggled with them—the Ute D had very, very few missed tackles.
While this game hasn't received nearly as much attention as it should, it should be a wild one. One of the better out-of-conference slugfests of the year.
Expect passion, speed, tough play and to be hearing from the best crowd in the country on every down.