SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – As big as Utah’s game is at Oregon this weekend, head coach Kyle Whittingham’s thoughts were with Virginia, which had three football players killed in a tragic shooting.

“I want to send our condolences from our program to Virginia,” said Whittingham, who lost two players to shootings the last couple years in Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe. “The tragic, horrific situation that they’re going through. We’ve reached out and done some things to let them know that we’re thinking of them and praying for them. We have been through our shard of tragedy, and it’s awful. I don’t know what more you can say.”

The games do go on, and it doesn’t get any bigger than this one. If Utah can go into Oregon and knock off the Ducks Saturday night, all they’d have to do is beat lowly Colorado, and they will be headed to the Pac-12 championship game to defend their title.

There are also possibilities where five teams could end up tied atop the conference. But Utah knows it controls its own destiny to get back to the championship game.

“That’s what you want to play in,” Whittingham said. “If you’re not playing in pressure games, you’re irrelevant. You don’t want to be irrelevant, you want your backs to be against the wall, or each game mattering and critical, which is the situation we’re in.”

The Utes beat Oregon twice last year, once in the regular season and once in the Pac-12 title game. But despite losing Saturday to Washington, this Oregon team is better, especially at quarterback with Auburn transfer Bo Nix.

“Oregon is terrific on offense, leading the league in total offense, first or second in points,” Whittingham said. “Bo Nix is a tremendous player, and [he] is absolutely the single difference between last year and this year.”

It will be strength against strength, as Utah’s defense has been absolutely dominant the last three weeks. Against Stanford, Utah gave up just 177 yards and recorded seven sacks.

“A dominating performance by our defense,” Whittingham said. “They’ve really strung together some good stuff in the last ten quarters or so.”

What a performance from Tavion Thomas against the Cardinal. Thomas rushed for a career high 180 yards and two touchdowns. Thomas out gained the entire Stanford offense himself, and after overcoming some personal issues, it looks like he’s taken over the starting running back job again.

“We sure hope so,” Whittingham said. “We’ll see how the week goes and what the plan is. But I can’t see him not being a big part of what we do. He just came off of one of his best performances, and hopefully we get more of the same this week.”

Utah and Oregon kick off at 8:00 p.m. Saturday night in Eugene.