Ducks look to take “next step” by curing road woes

Oregon hits the road for the third time in four weeks; this time traveling to Utah to face a physical Utes squad

It’s been an up-and-down season for Oregon.

On one end, the Ducks are 5-1 at home, averaging 43 points and giving up 24.3 points per game in the process. The comfortable confines of Autzen stadium make the Ducks look like a top-25 team in the country, something they were for much of the season.

But with any young team, winning on the road is what separates the good from being great. And that’s where Oregon has fallen short — holding a 1-2 record on the road after being outscored 102-77.

When on the road, Oregon looks like a completely different team, suffering from a lack of execution and fight. In the two losses to Washington State and Arizona, the Ducks were defeated from the get-go. They looked out of sync, missing tackles, dropping passes and just being beaten mentally and physically in all phases of the game.

Because of those road woes, Oregon’s trip to Utah (6-3, 4-3 Pac-12) this weekend has become extremely important if the Ducks (6-3, 3-3 Pac-12) want to take the next step from good to great. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. PT and will air on the Pac-12 Networks.

“God help you if you walk into an arena on gameday not at your best because it's not going to be good enough… it doesn't matter who you are or who you think you are,” Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. “That is a step that our program must take… that we must emphasize and get results from for us to be the team we want to be."

Even Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham had trouble explaining Oregon’s consistency issues, saying “they are 6-3 and they have done a good job this year, but I don't know if I can put an exact finger on why they have played better in some weeks than others.”

Helping the Ducks this season is their prior success against the Utes, having won the two previous matchups.

Two years ago, in quarterback Justin Herbert’s sixth career start, he led the Ducks on a game-winning drive, throwing a touchdown to Darren Carrington with two seconds left for the 30-28 win over the 12th-ranked Utes.

Last year, Oregon held Utah running back Zach Moss to just 53 rushing yards as a balanced offense led the way in the 41-20 win — making up for the absence of Herbert, who was out with a broken collarbone.

If the Ducks are going to take the next step and secure a quality road win, it’s going to come against one of the nation’s top defenses. The Utes, who rank 17th in the nation in total defense (314.7 yards) and scoring defense (19.1 points), are led by linebackers Chase Hanson and Cody Barton.

“They're complete linebackers and when they close, they understand how to tackle and how to get a guy on the ground,” Cristobal said of Hanson and Barton. “They're blessed with tremendous ability, but they know what they're doing and they're doing it in a physical manner."

Offsetting Utah’s talented defense will be the continued elevation of Herbert and his star receiver, Dillon Mitchell. Mitchell has dominated Pac-12 competition, catching 50 passes for 735 yards (122.5 yards per game) — all conference highs.

“I think what you've seen is his game has elevated,” Cristobal said of Mitchell. “Has he gotten more of the balls thrown to him? Yeah, he's been targeted more but is a product of him being open and working his tail off to do so.”

With their chances of winning the Pac-12 North title slim to none, the Ducks are looking to this game as a way to prove they’re on the path to greatness. But standing in their way is a vaunted defense with an even more hostile environment not known for success.

The difference between good and great is minimal and Oregon is one step away — a step that will go forward or backward after this weekend.