No. 18 Utah's defense faces toughest test in No. 13 Oregon
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) No. 18 Utah finished its nonconference schedule with a 3-0 record and matched its highest ranking since 2010.
Things are about to get a lot tougher for the Utes as they travel to No. 13 Oregon on Saturday.
''This is actually a measuring test for our team just to show what we can do,'' Utah cornerback Cory Butler-Byrd said. ''... If we come out and beat a team that does put up points, it says a lot about our program. It's pretty much a big measuring stick as far as how we stand in the Pac-12.''
The outcome will give everyone a clue as to where Utah stands in the entire country - especially the defense.
The Utes have the second-ranked run defense in the Pac-12 and are No. 27 in the nation, allowing 105.7 yards per game. The unit is ranked No. 4 in the conference in scoring defense (18.3 points per game) and No. 35 in the nation. Utah, however, has faced programs ranked No. 86 in scoring offense (Michigan), No. 88 (Fresno State) and No. 125 (Utah State).
Neither Fresno State nor Utah State is a Power 5 team and Michigan is in the midst of rebuilding under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh.
The Ducks are, by far, the most talented team the Utes have faced so far. Oregon has the eighth-ranked rushing offense in the country, the ninth-ranked overall offense and the ninth-ranked scoring offense. The offense features 5-foot-11, 230-pound running back Royce Freeman, who ranks No. 14 in the nation in rushing yards.
''He's a tremendous football player and he's a load,'' Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. ''He's a big thick kid and he's fast. Just great production. He's tough. I was amazed at how physical he was.''
Whittingham has acknowledged his defense looks different than in the past. The Utes led the nation with 55 sacks in 2014, but have tallied just three in 2015. Utah's five interceptions, however, are two shy of the national high. The defensive backs have gotten more highlight plays this season and cornerback Dominique Hatfield just returned to the starting lineup last week after a suspension.
''We've been maybe a little more conservative, leaning on the four-man rush,'' Whittingham said. ''We haven't had a consistent ability to get to the quarterback.
''The thing that has been different has been pressure on the quarterback and not dialing up as many blitzes. We need to take a look at that and see what direction we need to go.''
Utah is preparing to face quarterback Vernon Adams, who missed the Ducks' last game with a broken finger. He threw for 555 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 100 yards and a touchdown in two games, including a loss to No. 2 Michigan State. There is a Plan B for Jeff Lockie, who started last week against Georgia State and threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns.
Oregon runs one of the fastest-paced offenses in the country and conditioning is often an issue for opponents. The Utes were right there with Oregon last season, trailing 27-20 going into the fourth quarter, but gave up 24 points in the final 15 minutes.
''A win on the road against a great team like Oregon would be a great foundation for conference play,'' Utah defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu said. ''I think it'll be a good momentum-setter for the rest of our season.''
AP college football site: www.collegefootball.ap.org