November 04, 2014

A month ago, Oregon's chances at a national title appeared to take a serious blow, but four straight wins have revived those hopes and put it back in the playoff picture.

No. 20 Utah could have a chance to all but officially end the fifth-ranked Ducks' chances at that championship.

Another absence on the offensive line could make it more difficult, but Oregon has an opportunity to clinch a spot in the Pac-12 title game Saturday night when it visits the Utes and their ferocious defense.

The Ducks (8-1, 5-1) opened the season with a four-game winning streak, but that ended with a 31-24 home loss to Arizona on Oct. 2. That defeat was a dose of reality as Oregon went from championship contender to outsider before re-establishing itself by outscoring opponents by an average of 21.0 points during another four-game run.

"Particularly after the Arizona game it's been more competitive, a better sense of urgency," coach Mark Helfrich said. "All those things, win or lose, you try to impart on these guys of getting better in everything we do. Unfortunately, sometimes it's adversity in the form of a loss that wakes everybody up.

"You don't want to lose but how our guys responded to that and how they came together is very encouraging. We've gotten better every week."

The Ducks may have been at their best last weekend, racking up 525 yards of offense in a 45-16 rout of Stanford, which entered allowing just 250.6 per game.

That was enough to convince the 12-member selection committee to put Oregon fourth in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, behind top-ranked Mississippi State, No. 2 Florida State and third-ranked Auburn.

The Ducks may have trouble staying there unless they can continue protecting star quarterback Marcus Mariota against Utah (6-2, 3-2), which leads the nation with 39 sacks - 21 combined from wide receiver-turned-defensive end Nate Orchard and Hunter Dimick.

The Utes had four sacks and two interceptions, but the offense managed a season-low 241 yards in a 19-17 loss at then-No. 15 Arizona State last Saturday.

"They're playing lights out, especially on the defensive side of the ball," Helfrich said of Utah. "You have to be on point in every phase to get it done."

Doing so could be made tougher if right tackle Matt Pierson is out with a knee injury suffered last weekend. He could become the fourth tackle to miss a game for Oregon, which will be without Andre Yruretagoyena for an eight straight game.

"When I saw him go down and grab his knee ... I felt so bad for him," center Hroniss Grasu said of Pierson.

The inconsistencies on the line led to Mariota being sacked 12 times in back-to-back games, including five against Arizona. However, he's only been reached four times in four games since, while completing 65.0 percent of his passes for 1,130 yards and 11 touchdowns with two picks. He's also added 195 yards and four more scores on 29 carries over that span.

Mariota cites the loss to Arizona as the turning point for the Ducks.

"I think guys, with that loss (to Arizona), kind of grew up a little bit. A lot of maturity: The guys understand that we'll kind of have our backs up against the wall with some of our goals this year," Mariota said. "We've got to keep fighting through ... And that's what we've got to continue to do if we want our season what we want it to be."

Mariota was instrumental in a 44-21 victory over Utah in the most recent matchup on Nov. 16. He was 19 of 26 for 288 yards with three TDs and was sacked three times.

While a win would secure the Ducks a spot in the conference championship game, the Utes may have their status among the nation's elite on the line.

To stay there, Utah likely needs a much better performance from Travis Wilson, who completed 12 of 22 for only 57 yards against the Sun Devils. The junior, though, could have some success against Oregon, which has surrendered 663 passing yards over the past two games.

Devontae Booker should continue in his role as the Utes' biggest offensive threat. The freshman running back is third in the conference with 990 yards, averaging 5.4 per carry with eight touchdowns. He's topped 100 rushing yards in five straight games, gaining 146 on 37 carries while adding a 4-yard TD catch last week.

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