We still have not played up to our potential. We have not played our best football game. As far as a complete game with all three phases, that is something we are striving for every week — is to get better. —Utah coach Kyle Whittingham
EUGENE, Ore. — In the big picture, Saturday’s game between Utah and Oregon is what it is. Both the Utes (4-3, 1-3) and Ducks (4-4, 1-4) enter Autzen Stadium with three-game losing streaks.
“So it will be two teams that need a win,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “That is the story line.”
Point taken. However, there are actually several other story lines developing in this matchup.
On the Oregon side, quarterback Justin Herbert could see his first action since breaking his collarbone in a win over California on Sept. 30. Herbert, who has passed for 1,264 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions this season, connected with Darren Carrington II on a 17-yard touchdown pass with two seconds remaining that lifted the Ducks to a 30-28 upset of the Utes last season at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Carrington II wound up transferring to Utah over the summer after being charged with driving under the influence of intoxicants in Eugene. He was dismissed from the team by new Oregon coach Willie Taggart. As a graduate student, Carrington II was immediately eligible to play elsewhere.
At Utah, Carrington II leads the team with 45 receptions, 649 yards and five touchdowns. His return to Oregon is a big story line.
“I think he will be excited to go back and play,” said Whittingham, who planned to advise Carrington II not to press and rather let the game come to him.
The Utes have done a bit of juggling on offense in recent weeks. Quarterback Tyler Huntley returned last Saturday from a shoulder injury and had a subpar performance in a 30-10 loss to Arizona State. He’s eager to bounce back to the form he showed in the first four games before getting hurt.
“As a player, I’ve just got to keep leading this offense and just make sure that we don’t have no more games like that,” Huntley said.
The sophomore added that the offense lacked chemistry and didn’t know what it was doing out there.
“And that showed,” he added.
Huntley stressed the importance of having trust and belief.
In an effort to improve efficiency, offensive coordinator Troy Taylor is going to work from the press box instead of being on the field. He chose to swap spots with tight ends coach Freddie Whittingham this week.
Utah’s defense also has storylines. Whittingham is hopeful that starting linebacker Sunia Tauteoli and safety Chase Hansen will return from injuries. The Utes have had only one sack during their current skid.
“We are trying to get a better pass rush. It’s all on us,” said defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi. “The coaches are taking the blame, but I take full responsibility as a leader of the D-line.”
Stopping the run has also been a challenge as Utah’s defensive line works through injuries. The usually stout defensive currently ranks fourth in the Pac-12, giving up 131.9 yards per game on the ground. Oregon running back Royce Freeman will be a force to reckon with, he’s rushed for 143 yards and more in five games this season.
Then there’s the revenge angle. Utah’s last visit to Autzen Stadium was a resounding success. The Utes prevailed 62-20 in 2015.
“Everything just went our way. So it was an awesome feeling,” Mokofisi said. “But it’s a new year, two years later — new players, new teams, schemes, all that — so it’s going to be a much different game.”
Such was the case last year when Oregon rallied to beat the Utes in Salt Lake City.
“It definitely stung. It hurt a lot,” Mokofisi said. “That game was probably one of the worst losses I’ve had.”
Mokofisi added that they’ve got be ready to play because anybody can beat anybody in the Pac-12. Such is life.
“One of our goals was to become the best football team that we could become. We pared down the goals this year and focused on just a few,” Whittingham said. “We still have not played up to our potential. We have not played our best football game. As far as a complete game with all three phases, that is something we are striving for every week — is to get better.
“And I don’t think we did that last week,” he added. “I think we took a step backward.”
Consecutive losses to Stanford (23-20), USC (28-27) and Arizona State have pretty much doused Utah’s hopes for a Pac-12 South title. Even so, the Utes are determined to turn things around.
‘You’ve just got to be positive with everything,” said Mokofisi, who noted that there’s still a lot of football left to be played. “We can go 5-0 from here on out. We’ve just got to keep bringing it.”
EXTRA POINTS: Oregon leads the all-time series with Utah 21-9 and holds an 11-5 edge in Eugene. ... The Utes are 2-1 on the road this season, prevailing at BYU and Arizona before losing at USC. ... Freshman defensive end Mika Tafua was awarded a scholarship last week. The former Hawaii prep star originally signed with BYU before serving an LDS Church mission in Tacoma, Washington.
Utah (4-3, 1-3)
at Oregon (4-4, 1-4)
Autzen Stadium, Eugene
Saturday, 3:45 p.m. (MT)
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700AM