Utah coach Kyle Whittingham played it cool. He mentioned how this was just another game and how the Utes were treating it exactly as such.
That's a hard sell.
In reality, there’s a heap riding on Saturday night's clash between No. 24 Utah and fourth-ranked Oregon in Salt Lake City.
Conference-wise, both the Ducks (9-1, 6-1) and the Utes (7-3, 6-1) have a shot at wrapping up their side of the Pac-12 divisions as they remain on course to meet again in the league’s title game on Dec. 3.
Big picture-wise, a win keeps the Ducks in the hunt for a spot in the College Football Playoff. They’re sitting at No. 3 after the latest reveal of the CFP rankings.
Program-wise, a victory by the Utes would make Whittingham (141-69) the winningest coach in team history. He would move past Ike Armstrong (141-55-15 from 1925-49).
“We treat them all the same,” Whittingham said of his team's game-by-game mentality. “That’s how you have to do it in the Pac-12 because if you don’t, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, you’re going to get beat if you’re not ready to go. We approach it the same exact way every single week."
Whittingham did add later: “This will be obviously, on paper, be our biggest test of the year."
The Ducks are vying to make a third-straight trip to the conference championship game. They will wrap up the North with a victory over Utah or an Arizona State win at Oregon State. The Utes will claim the South with a win or a Beavers victory over the Sun Devils.
A rematch between the two seems almost inevitable, which might mean they don't show all their cards?
“Coaches don't think that way, at least we don't,” Whittingham said. “We have work to do. We haven't done anything yet that's set in stone. We've still got football we need to play and games we need to win.”
Same goes for the Ducks, who hold a 23-10 lead in the all-time series against Utah.
“You’re playing against an excellent football team that has been really good for a long, long time,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “It’ll be a great challenge for us — a great opportunity.”
Cristobal said there’s something special about football this time of the year. The Ducks are 11-3 in November under Cristobal.
“Novembers can be really special because they realize they’re in the fourth quarter of the season," Cristobal said. "I think you’ll see everyone’s best, their best competitive side, their most competitive DNA, show out in November.”
Whittingham said there’s no real way to replicate in practice the kind of havoc that Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux creates. Thibodeaux was the Pac-12 defensive player and defensive lineman of the week after a two-sack performance in Oregon’s 38-24 victory over Washington State last week.
“To replicate him in practice ... that’s impossible,” Whittingham said. “If we had that guy, that guy would be leading the nation in sacks. We just don’t have that guy right now.”
Oregon running back Byron Cardwell was named the Pac-12′s freshman of the week after rushing for 98 yards and two TDs against Washington State. He scored on runs of 27 and 22 yards in the fourth quarter.
“He’s growing up fast. We always felt confident in him that he would,” Cristobal said. “He invests a lot of time, he’s very serious about the game, he’s very serious about his development and he’s very serious about his teammates having success. So, all in all, the invested time, the extra time, is really paying off for him and we’re going to need him to keep developing at that level.”
Don’t forget about Travis Dye, either, who’s 92 yards rushing away from reaching 1,000 in a season for the first time in his career.
The Utes have allowed two touchdowns on kick returns. They've also had two punts blocked that resulted in a score, including one last weekend at Arizona as the Utes hung on for a 38-29 win.
“You would think we’d have that solved by now but apparently, we didn’t," Whittingham said. "I’ve got to coach it better and we’ve got to find a way to protect our punter.”
LOUD & CLEAR
The capacity at Rice-Eccles Stadium went from 45,807 to 51,444 with the expansion of the Ken Garff Red Zone. Utah set a new attendance record at the stadium with 51,922 fans against UCLA on Oct. 30. They’re averaging 51,660 fans.
AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson contributed to this report.
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