It’s no big secret what the University of Oregon wants to do on offense.
The third-ranked Ducks, who visit Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night for a high-stakes meeting with the 24th-ranked University of Utah (5:30 p.m., ABC), want to run the ball. Through 10 games, nearly 60% of the Ducks’ business on offense has been conducted on the ground.
Thirty-eight percent of Oregon’s 403 rushing attempts belong to Travis Dye. If Utah (7-3, 6-1 Pac-12) wants to beat the Ducks (9-1, 6-1 Pac-12) and clinch a spot in the Pac-12 championship game without any outside help, it has to at least find a way to slow down Dye, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound fourth-year junior.
“That guy is as tough as they come, you talk about an old-school football player,” Utah defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said earlier this week. “His size is a big issue. He’s not that big, so it’s tough to identify him through the gaps, and he’s such a patient runner. Great balance, great vision and, like I said, tough as nails.
“Usually, your smaller backs go down fairly easily. He does not do that. He has great balance and can make you miss. Great out of the backfield catching the ball as well.”
Dye has 908 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns, while averaging 6.0 yards per carry, but Scalley alluded to his pass-catching abilities out of the backfield. Thirty-two catches for 302 yards give Dye 184 plays from scrimmage and 1,210 yards from scrimmage, both of which lead the Pac-12.
Utah has been gashed on the ground a couple of times this season, while currently sitting at fifth in the Pac-12 and 48th nationally in rushing defense at 136 yards per game.
“He’s a slasher, he’s a tough running back,” Utah All-American linebacker Devin Lloyd said. “He runs downhill, behind his pads. They have a great O-line, you can tell they’re coached really well. He’s just a tough guy, he’s going to keep on going and he’s just going to keep coming at you.”
Dye is the featured attraction, but true freshman Byron Cardwell has come on of late as an equally-dangerous option out of Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal’s backfield. In Oregon’s last three games, all wins, Caldwell has rushed 32 times for 280 yards and three touchdowns.
In the previous seven games, Cardwell had 40 rushing yards on just nine carries, but his role has expanded in the wake of All-Pac-12 running back CJ Verdell being lost for the season last month due to injury.
“Good player, really good player, and a tough kid,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said of Cardwell. “He’s starting to hit his stride, and they certainly miss the Verdell kid, but everyone’s injured, everyone has guys they miss. They’ve done a nice job of having guys step up and pick up the slack.
It stands to reason that Utah will not miss having to face Verdell. The last time the Utes and Ducks played was the 2019 Pac-12 championship game. Verdell was named MVP that night after rushing for 208 yards and three touchdowns on just 18 carries.