SALT LAKE CITY — Justin Herbert to Dillon Mitchell.
The Ducks (6-3, 3-3) enter their game against Utah on Saturday at Rice-Eccles Stadium (2:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks) with the most productive quarterback-wide receiver combination in the conference.
But Herbert’s reliance on Mitchell has coincided with the disappearance of Johnny Johnson and other receivers from the box score.
Fortunately for offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, the one-dimensional passing game was not an issue last week with Herbert and Mitchell getting out of concussion protocol in time to connect eight times for 156 yards and two touchdowns during the 42-21 win over UCLA.
“Dillon and Justin have a good little thing going. That happens, that’s chemistry at that position,” Arroyo said. “If you have that, you’ve got to be thankful you have it, as opposed to, ‘Oh gosh, is it just him?’
“Many guys wish they had that.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham would trade for Oregon’s quarterback and skill position situation right now.
The Utes (6-3, 4-3) will be without starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and standout running back Zach Moss, who both suffered season-ending injuries within the last week.
Redshirt freshman Jason Shelley will be making his first career start after Huntley was sidelined by a broken collarbone during a loss at Arizona State.
Junior Armand Shyne (166 yards) and freshman TJ Green (91 yards) are the next men up in the backfield after Moss went down with a knee injury during Wednesday’s practice.
“First of all, the team has to rally around (Shelley) and embrace him,” Whittingham said. “It is not just about the quarterback, everyone around him has to be better. The defense has to be better, and everyone has to do their part in picking up the slack.
“Losing Tyler, he was a heck of a player, so we have to make sure Jason knows we have complete confidence in him, and I believe he does.”
In limited snaps as the backup, Shelley has passed for 99 yards with no touchdowns and an interception and rushed for 47 yards.
Moss had rushed for 1,092 yards and 11 touchdowns through nine games and was on pace to set school records for single-season and career rushing yards.
Utah, a program with a reputation for elite offensive and defensive line play, is second in the Pac-12 in rushing (202 ypg) and 10th in passing (217.6 ypg).
“The game will never change in that manner from the time we played the game up until now,” Oregon defensive line coach Joe Salave’a said of the importance of winning at the line of scrimmage. “The wrinkles as far as game planning and scheme might vary, but when you peel this thing down, football is all about toughness, physical play through and through. We’re excited about the opportunity.”
Herbert will be taking the snaps from versatile junior Calvin Throckmorton in the first half and starting center Jake Hanson, who is suspended for last week’s targeting penalty, in the second half.
Steven Jones, a 6-foot-7, 375-pound true freshman, is expected to be the second player from his recruiting class to start at left tackle this season. Penei Sewell protected Herbert’s blind side until getting injured against Washington.
The Ducks recommitted themselves to the run game against Chip Kelly’s Bruins, finishing with 200 net yards on 42 attempts.
Coach Mario Cristobal discussed the importance of sticking with the ground game, even if it is stuffed early by Utah’s defense, which leads the Pac-12 and is ninth nationally in rushing yards allowed (100.0 per game).
“Those one- and two-yard shots, they’re like body blows in boxing. They take their toll,” Cristobal said. “Then all of the sudden the third quarter, the fourth quarter it’s eight, it’s 10, it’s 12, and then it’s 55, it’s 60. I think we’ve seen that before in that other conference (the SEC) down there. That’s how, especially at this time of year when bodies are beat up, it’s such a key component of football.
“The physicality that comes with it, the desire to fight through all the discomforts that come with it, I kind of love that stuff.”
To Cristobal’s point, Tony Brooks-James was able to break through for a 54-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Ducks also dominated UCLA in special teams, highlighted by Ugo Amadi’s 56-yard punt return for a touchdown, and took a 35-14 lead on Herbert’s 67-yard touchdown pass to Mitchell.
Two years ago, Herbert threw a game-winning touchdown pass to Darren Carrington to stun No. 12 Utah in Salt Lake City. Everyone inside Rice-Eccles Stadium will know who he will be looking for if this year’s game comes down to the wire.
“Fortunately, Dillon is always open,” Herbert said of the Pac-12’s leading receiver. “He does a great job of running routes and getting open. He makes my job a lot easier.
“I’d like to spread it around more, but Dillon just does a great job of getting open.”