EUGENE, Ore. — Utah’s inability to put points on the board in the fourth quarter was magnified in last week’s 20-19 loss to Arizona State.
The Utes let a 12-point lead slip away. While it was the defense that actually surrendered the two touchdowns, it was the offense that pretty much vanished down the stretch. Utah's final six possessions consisted of four consecutive three-and-outs and then a pair of interceptions.
“We’ve got to play better,” said co-offensive coordinator Brian Johnson. “We have to go out there and score points and take care of the football and do the things that you’re supposed to do to be successful on offense.”
That’s the biggest deal, he added, and they understand it.
Problem is, this won’t be the easiest week to get it all sorted out. The Utes (4-5, 1-5) take on sixth-ranked Oregon (8-1, 5-1) Saturday afternoon at Autzen Stadium. They'll do so without starting quarterback Travis Wilson, who didn't make the trip because of a concussion.
And there's more.
The Ducks just happen to lead the Pac-12 in scoring defense at 17.9 points per game. They also happen to be a bit angry after losing to Stanford last week.
“Oregon is a talented football team and we’ll need our best effort from everyone — players and coaches — to make a run at the Ducks,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said in the team’s weekly press release.
Whittingham told reporters on Monday that Oregon hasn’t missed a beat with head coach Chip Kelly leaving for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. The Ducks, under Mark Helfrich, have just picked up where they left off.
That, however, is not what Utah’s offense is looking to do. The Utes are in a serious late-game drought. Since a 2-yard scoring strike from Travis Wilson to Karl Williams against BYU on Sept. 21, the lone touchdown they’ve scored in the final quarter was a 19-yard interception return by Keith McGill in the UCLA game on Oct. 3.
“We’ve got to play better on offense,” Whittingham acknowledged. “We all understand that.”
Stanford provided a blueprint for success in its 26-20 win over Oregon. The Cardinal had possession of the ball for more than 42½ minutes, rushing for 274 yards and converting on third down 14 times.
“I think everyone would like to do that, and that plays into Stanford’s schemes very well,” Whittingham said. “Two years in a row they got it done against Oregon.”
Now comes Utah’s opportunity to knock them off.
“I think possession of the football is going to be huge in our game and we definitely got to make sure we’re running the ball effectively and definitely passing,” Wilson said after practice earlier in the week. “So we’ve got to make sure we get better at those two things. We’ve got to move the ball downfield.”
Wilson, who is expected to be replaced by backup Adam Schulz, added that the Utes can’t shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to third-down situations and turnovers. Oregon’s defense, which ranks in the upper echelon of the conference against both the pass and run, won’t make things easy.
“I know it’ll be a big test, but if we come ready to play it’ll be a good game,” said Wilson, whose status wasn't clarified until Friday afternoon.
Utah’s recent offensive woes and losing record at this point in the season, he admitted, are frustrating.
“It’s something that this whole team needs to work through and we’ve got to make sure we stick together,” Wilson said. “I know we’ll get things corrected.”
Punter Tom Hackett agrees.
“Everyone’s in it together,” he said. “You go out on game day and you hope and pray that all three phases of the game are going to come together and you’re going to get the ‘W.’ ”
And now there’s a growing sense of urgency to secure the latter. Utah’s hopes for bowl eligibility weigh in the balance.
“That’s our No. 1 goal and the math gets easier and easier as the season goes on,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got to win two out of three, and that’s the long and short of it. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
It's a task made much easier, however, if things are clicking on offense — especially late in games.
“It’s just a matter of doing it consistently — week in and week out — and winning those close games,” Johnson said. “Just understanding the situations and handling our business in the fourth quarter and having a killer instinct and finishing people.”
EXTRA POINTS: Tight end Jake Murphy, who has been out with a broken wrist since Oct. 3, made the trip and is expected to play — barring any late decision by the medical staff preventing him from doing so . . . Linebacker Jared Norris and running back Kelvin York did not make trip because of undisclosed injuries . . . Oregon leads the all-time series with Utah by an 18-8 margin. The Ducks are expecting their 95th consecutive sellout at 54,000-seat Autzen Stadium. The Utes have lost seven straight road games to ranked opponents. The last win was a 20-17 decision at No. 19 BYU in 1999.
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