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With division titles lurking, No. 23 Utah looking to spoil No. 3 Oregon's playoff hopes



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — When Nephi Sewell takes the field Saturday in Utah's biggest game of the 2021 season, his family in the stands of Rice-Eccles Stadium will be wearing a split jersey — one half Utes and the other half Ducks.

For the second time in as many contests, Sewell will be sharing the field with a family member wearing an Oregon jersey.

"I like the jerseys — support both ways," Sewell said. "It's definitely a blessing."

In 2019, Sewell competed against brother Penei, who was selected No. 7 overall in the 2021 NFL draft, in the Pac-12 Championship game. To Penei Sewell's credit, he helped cement an impenetrable offensive line that allowed running back CJ Verdell to go to work against a Utah defense ranked No. 3 in the country en route to a dominant win.

It's a loss that knocked Utah out of playoff contention and one that hasn't sat well with the program in the two years since the two programs last met.

When Nephi Sewell lines up at linebacker Saturday (5:30 p.m. MT, ABC), he'll do so hoping to play spoiler to No. 3 Oregon's (9-1, 6-1) playoff chances, even if his younger brother, Noah, who also plays linebacker, will be pushing just as hard to keep Oregon's playoff dream alive.

"It's definitely different," Nephi Sewell said of playing against his brother. "I would like to be playing on the same side, but our paths went different ways. But it's kind of a blessing, as well, just to see where we came from and how we got here, kind of just reflecting on how things went over the years. For sure grateful for the opportunity.

"Not many people get to play against their brothers, so I'm just excited and look forward to playing against him."

And though Oregon has been the conference favorite since before the season began and is in prime position to get the Pac-12 back in the four-team playoff, No. 23 Utah (7-3, 6-1) enters the game as the favored team — Vegas has the Utes as a 3-point favorite, and ESPN's Football Power Index, among several other models, gives the home team a 61.8% chance of a win.

It's a game of significant importance for both teams who need one win to clinch their respective division title races (or a loss from Arizona State for Utah and a loss from Oregon State for Oregon — the two teams play Saturday) to potentially serve as a precursor for a rematch in the conference championship game in two weeks in Las Vegas.

Oregon enters the game with everything to lose, while Utah has less to worry about with a one-game lead over Arizona State in the division standings. Some have even suggested it's in Utah's best interest to lose Saturday and then win the conference championship game, but there's no guarantees — it's not like Colorado has played spoiler to Utah in a division race before.

Whatever the situation and the obvious stakes at hand, Utah is focused solely on a tough battle against an Oregon team that looks almost identical to the Utes in nearly every statistical category — Oregon has the 14th most efficient program in the country, according to FPI, and Utah lands one spot behind at 15th.

Go down the statistical measures — scoring offense, total offense, scoring defense, etc. — and the two teams go hand in hand, with one team edging out the other in each category.

Both teams pride themselves on being physical and winning the battle in the trenches. And while the 2019 meeting can serve as a guide, the two teams have a different makeup, which makes Saturday's contest a little different.

"What hasn't changed is their focus on running the football," defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said. "They pride themselves on being physical, just like we pride ourselves in being physical. In that (2019) game, obviously, the QB was a big factor; he'll be a big factor in this game, in terms of the run game, as well. So you definitely look at how they tried to attack.

"We're a little bit different schematically than we were in '19 — a little bit different personnel, but there's a lot of carryover from what they're doing."

And though there are some similarities in how both team approach the game, Utah hopes to see a different result when the final whistle is blown. For that to happen, though, Utah knows it has to clean up its mistakes — run defense and special teams being the biggest concern. Sewell said the team has worked to be more "fundamentally sound in our gaps."

Scalley said it will just come down to Utah playing "assignment football."

The defense has improved over the season but will face the second-best rushing offense in the Pac-12, with Travis Dye, who Scalley calls "as tough as they come," leading the charge.

"You talk about an old school football player. His size is a big issue," Scalley said about Dye. "I mean, 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 tough as nails. Usually your smaller backs they go down fairly easily; he does not do that. He's got great balance, he can make you miss."

When Utah has been able to contain the run, the chances of a win have been significantly greater. In all three losses this season, Utah allowed the opposing team to run for over 200 yards, including a 260-yard performance in Utah's only conference loss of the season to Oregon State.

The Beavers lead the conference in rushing yards, but Utah was "soft" against the run, according to Kyle Whittingham, and allowed Oregon State to run all over the field. Conversely, Utah limited two run-heavy offenses in Arizona State (148 yards allowed) and UCLA (146 yards allowed) earlier in the season and came away with wins.

Run defense matters in Utah's game plan.

For Utah to have success against Oregon, its run defense has to be more like the Arizona State and UCLA games and not the Oregon State game. It just so happened that both came at home against the South division rivals.

Rice-Eccles Stadium may be key to that victory, too. And it might be enough to make Whittingham the all-time winningest coach in Utah history (oh, and clinch the South division title without the help of anyone else).

How to watch, stream and listen to the game

No. 3 Oregon (9-1, 6-1) at No. 23 Utah (7-3, 6-1)

Rice-Eccles Stadium, Salt Lake City, UT

Kickoff: 5:30 p.m. MT

TV: ABC (Sean McDonough, Todd Blackledge, Molly McGrath)

Radio: ESPN 700 (Bill Riley, Scott Mitchell) or listen online via the TuneIn app or on Sirius XM — Sirius (108), XM (197) and internet (959)

Series: Oregon leads 23-10 (In Salt Lake City, Oregon leads 10-5)

Stadium incentives: In an effort to get fans in the stands before kickoff, Utah is offering 30% off all concession sales from 3:30-4:30 p.m.

Military Appreciation Day: The Utes will be wearing special uniforms with hand-painted helmets to honor veterans who served on the USS Salt Lake City. To see a gallery of the uniforms, click here.

All-time record: In a win over Arizona last week, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham tied the all-time winning record with Ike Armstrong at 141 games. A win Saturday gives Whittingham the record in 17 seasons as the team's head coach.

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