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Oregon Defensive Keys to the Game vs. Utah in Pac-12 Championship Game

The Ducks' defense had its toughest day of the year against Utah on Nov. 20, giving up 208 rushing yards and 31 points.

Oregon's defense has been up and down throughout the regular season in Tim DeRuyter's debut season as defensive coordinator. Pure dominance wasn't expected in year one, and while there have been flashes of dominance from the Ducks' defense this year, they looked their most vulnerable against Utah two weeks ago.

It was as if all of Oregon's defensive weaknesses had been exposed all at once on a national stage. There were a lot of missed tackles, an inability to get Cameron Rising to the ground in the backfield, and a lack of coverage in the middle of the field allowing Brant Kuithe to frolic for over 100 yards.

The Ducks must be better at every level on defense on Friday. Here are three keys toward taking the Pac-12 crown.

1. Finish What You Start

There were numerous instances where a Ducks defender had Tavion Thomas right where he wanted him and just whiffed, or Thomas broke through an arm tackle. If you get in front of him or get your arms around him, bring him down. Same goes for TJ Pledger, Micah Bernard, Rising, or any player wearing black (Utah is wearing black by the way).

And the same can be said for pass rushers, but this is not quite as easy a fix. Utah's offensive line has been fantastic for the last month of the season and can (and has) match Oregon's physicality up front. But in the event that you get Rising out of the pocket and running for his life, bring him down.

Oregon has plenty of speed off the edge and coming through the middle. Noah Sewell blitzing up the middle has proven to be lethal, but at the same time it's a dangerous game because it leaves one less guy in coverage in the secondary, and if Rising can get the ball out quickly, chances are there's someone open back there.

2. Understand Your Assignment

This pertains to the issue of leaving Utah receivers open in the middle of the field. Now that the Ducks have faced Utah, the scouting report goes beyond what they see on film. They understand their schemes and tendencies more by going toe-to-toe with them on the gridiron, which sometimes is an even more valuable asset than what a camera can show you.

The Ducks defensive players can recognize certain routes that Utah players excel at, where their breaks are on routes, and the timing in which Rising gets them the ball. Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid are both big, athletic tight ends that are as much of a threat as any receiver the Ducks have faced in the Pac-12, and they've realized that by now. Being physical at the point of attack and not letting receivers get behind you is a big key to this game for Oregon.

The Ducks did this particularly well in last year's Pac-12 Championship against USC and the talented receiving corps they faced.

3. Unleash Kayvon Thibodeaux

There are some athletes that just thrive on another level when they're in a specific environment. "Game 6 Klay" and "Playoff Rondo" are iconic ones in the NBA. It might be time to start the hype train for "Pac-12 Championship Game Kayvon," because when he's on that stage, No. 5 is a different animal.

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In his first appearance in the conference title game against Utah, he set the Pac-12 Championship Game record with 2.5 sacks, and each of those came in the fourth quarter. He also blocked a punt in that game.

Last year against Utah, lined up against a future first-round NFL draft pick in Alijah Vera-Tucker, Thibodeaux was somehow even more disruptive than the previous year. He earned the Pac-12 Championship Game MVP after recording a sack, two tackles for loss and an unbelievable 12 quarterback pressures. According to PFF, 12 quarterback hurries were the most recorded by any Pac-12 player last season.

Thibodeaux wants the big stage. He wants the adversity. He's built for it. Who knows what Pac-12 Championship Game Kayvon: Volume Three has in store?

For the record, only three players in the Power 5 has ever been named the MVP of their conference title game in back-to-back seasons: Florida QB Danny Wuerffel, Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford and Clemson QB Deshaun Watson.

Thibodeaux was somewhat contained against the Utes two weeks ago, making a few stops against the run, but in what should be his final game against Pac-12 competition, it's time for him to feast like he didn't get enough to eat on Thanksgiving last week.

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Keys to the game: Offense


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