The team that won in Columbus is an underdog in Salt Lake City.
The two-time defending conference champions are expected to lose to the no-time defending conference champions.
The team that consistently raises its play to the heights required is projected to fall short in the biggest game of the Pac-12 season.
Look what we have here: The Ducks are a three-point dog Saturday afternoon at Utah.
The line makes two slivers of sense. The Utes always play well in the thin air and relentless din of Rice-Eccles Stadium. Also, they’re 6-1 since handing quarterback Cam Rising the keys to the attack.
We believe those advantages will hold up about as well as a running back trying to block Kayvon Thibodeaux.
The Ducks cover.
The Ducks win.
And here’s why:
1. Oregon has big-stage experience.
The Ducks won’t be unnerved by a few mistakes or a major shift in momentum toward the home team.
Quarterback Anthony Brown isn’t always smooth, but he tends to rise to the occasion (see: Ohio, Columbus; Sept. 11, 2021) and can make plays with his legs when the pocket breaks down. (Rest assured, the pocket will break down.)
After Ohio State scored early in the fourth quarter to pull within a touchdown, Brown responded with a 74-yard scoring drive to regain control.
After UCLA grabbed a 14-point first-half lead, Brown answered with back-to-back touchdown drives.
After Washington converted a touchdown and safety to claim an early advantage, Brown took the Ducks 76 yards for the go-ahead score.
Matchups of this magnitude are all about staying poised, responding to setbacks and making big plays on third down and in the Red Zone.
We expect Brown to meet the challenges on every front.
2. Utah’s defense is wobbly.
Ferocious as it looked against Arizona State and UCLA, the unit has struggled against the run at various points.
BYU blasted away for 231 yards on the ground. Oregon State piled up 260.
The Ducks are 10th in the nation in rushing, averaging one yard per game less than Oregon State.
The only thing they enjoy more than running the ball is running the ball when everyone in the stadium knows they’re going to run the ball.
We expect them to top 200 yards Saturday.
3. Utah’s special teams are deeply flawed.
In one of the most surprising developments of the Pac-12 season, Utah’s typically stout special teams have imploded.
Not once or twice, but seemingly on a weekly basis.
The Utes have missed five field goals, given up four touchdowns on returns and had three punts blocked.
In a game of this magnitude, with an opponent as savvy and talented as the Ducks, one mistake on special teams could be costly.
The Utes might have more than one.
To the picks. This week’s selections do not include Arizona-Washington State, which was scheduled for Friday night in Pullman. (The Hotline liked the Cougars to both win and cover 14.5 points).
Last week: 3-1-1
Five-star special: 5-7
All picks against the spread. Lines taken from vegasinsider.com
Washington (-6.5) at Colorado
Kickoff: 1 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks
Comment: Can’t help but think of the last time UW went to Boulder, and the lethargic performance that followed. (A week later, Chris Petersen stepped down.) Is there much reason to believe the Huskies will produce a better showing? Meanwhile, the Buffaloes have shown life on offense and will play with energy in the final home game for their seniors. Pick: Colorado
UCLA (-3) at USC
Kickoff: 2 p.m. on Ch. 11 Comment: Feels like a month since USC was last on the field (reality: two weeks). The Trojans will start promising freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart, whose mobility provides the erratic, Drake London-less offense with an added dimension. UCLA’s plan is no secret: Own the line of scrimmage and run the ball until USC’s 99th-ranked rushing defense proves it can stop Zach Charbonnet and Brittain Brown. Pick: UCLA
Cal (-1) at Stanford
Kickoff: 5 p.m. on Pac-12 Networks
Comment: The line opened with Cal as a 4-point favorite and has dropped, presumably because Stanford announced quarterback Tanner McKee is healthy enough to start. He’ll face Chase Garbers and what should be a mostly-intact Cal lineup, with only a few players held out because of the Bears’ COVID outbreak. Without the disruption, we would have leaned heavily to the Bears. No longer. The dynamics have changed. Pick: Stanford
Oregon (+3) at Utah
Kickoff: 5:30 p.m. on Ch. 9
Comment: One topic we didn’t address above: Utah’s powerhouse running game will face arguably the best middle linebacker in the conference (Noah Sewell), an active defensive front and an athletic secondary. In other words: We expect the Utes to have modest success on the ground, particularly on first down. That will shift the responsibility to Rising, who will be under heavy pressure. The Utes need big games from their tight ends, but Oregon has the personnel necessary for containment. Pick: Oregon
Arizona State (-3) at Oregon State
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. on ESPN
Comment: The Sun Devils head back to the Pacific Northwest a week after their come-from-behind victory in Seattle. They face a more complete opponent this week — one that will test their defense in ways Washington couldn’t. But we saw a version of this game 11 months ago, and ASU’s playmakers had their way against OSU, to the tune of 46 points and 500-something yards. Not sure the Beavers are better equipped this time around. Pick: Arizona State
Five-star special: Oregon. The Ducks and the points is a combination we refuse to turn down, at least until there’s evidence we should.
Straight-up winners: Colorado, UCLA, Stanford, Oregon and Arizona State.