No. 5 Utah comes up short in Pac-12 championship game
Utah had everything to play for. The Utes were one win away from not only winning the Pac-12 conference championship, but earning a spot in the coveted college football playoff.
So when the No. 5 Utes ran out of the tunnel on Friday night at Levi's Stadium prior to kickoff, confidence was high that Utah, riding an 8-game winning streak, was going to take care of business against No. 13 Oregon.
Somebody should've told the Utes.
Despite a desperate comeback attempt in the third quarter, Utah's title hopes were dashed as the Utes fell 37-15 to Oregon in a game that many didn't see turning out the way it did.
"Unfortunately we came up short tonight. Disappointing thing is we lost in the one area we’ve been undefeated this year: Line of scrimmage," said Ute head coach Kyle Whittingham. "We didn’t win the line of scrimmage for the first time all season, which is, like I say, disappointing. Surprising really. Credit Oregon."
Like Whittingham said, the Utes have prided themselves all season long on being the more physical team, but that just wasn't the case Friday night.
Utah came into the game with the nation's No. 1 rush defense, giving up just over 56 yards per game. But the Ducks absolutely gashed the Utes on the ground, running for 239 yards on 41 carries, a 5.9 yards per carry average — stats that were by far the worst the Utes had given up all season long.
"We’re usually the more physical team, like I said. Even in the loss earlier in the season, we won the line of scrimmage," Whittingham said. "I guess you could say they beat us with our strength, where our strength lied. But they’ve been physical all year long, too. ... They’re a good football team."
Oregon set the physicality on the two opening drives of the game, stopping the Utes on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 at its own 35. Then the Ducks promptly marched down the field, rushing for 47 yards on that opening drive that ended with a CJ Verdell touchdown.
"Definitely put a little chip on our shoulders," Verdell said. "We try not to focus on the outside noise too much. Hearing they're the most physical team in the Pac-12 made us want to come out here and work even harder."
Utah appeared to gain its footing towards the end of the first quarter when, despite trailing 10-0, forced a three-and-out defensively to get the ball back. A Zach Moss 42-yard carry on the first play of the drive put the ball at the Ducks 38, but the good graces were short-lived as quarterback Tyler Huntley threw his first interception of the game when he tried to fit the ball into double-coverage on a deep post.
"We didn’t have an ideal start by any means in that first quarter," Whittingham said. "Punt blocked, everything that could go wrong in that first quarter went wrong. Didn’t get a lot of production on offense in that first quarter, first half for that matter."
The second quarter faired no better as the Utes went into the half trailing 20-0, and leaving those in attendance at Levi's Stadium completely shocked and what has just taken place over the first 30 minutes.
But as they've done all season, Utah came out and dominated the third quarter to make a game of it.
After forcing a three-and-out on defense, Huntley got the offense ignited with his legs by rushing for 18 yards on the first two plays. He then found Moss for a 24-yard score to put the Utes right back in the game.
Another three-and-out defensively had the momentum switching but once again, the Utes were stymied on fourth-and-2 at midfield when Huntley's pass to Demari Simpkins was broken up by Thomas Graham Jr. Utah went 0-for-4 on forth down in the game.
Given the short field, the Ducks capitalized with a field goal.
But not to be denied, Huntley and co. got going again. This time, he found Samson Nacua on a beautifully thrown 25-yard post-corner touchdown, also connecting with Nacua on the 2-pt conversion to make in a one score game, 23-15, heading into the fourth.
The Utes defense forced another three-and-out to begin the fourth, setting the stage for Utah. Facing third-and-20 in its own territory, Huntley hit Moss for 16 yards, setting up a crucial fourth-and-4 from the Oregon 40 and forcing Whittingham to make a decision.
"Yeah, not getting the fourth downs earlier played into it. ... But I wouldn’t have done anything different there." Whittingham said of choosing to punt rather than go for it. "Like I say, we pinned them on the 10. I would have bet the house that our defense would have been able to get a stop."
Verdell and Oregon responded when on third-and-1, he burst through a hole, made a Utah safety miss and was off to the races for a 70-yard touchdown run.
That effectively ended the game as Utah's final three drives ended in a punt, an interception and turnover on downs.
"First of all, proud of this football team for the season they’ve had overall," Whittingham said. "Obviously tonight was a huge disappointment. But doesn’t detract from the fact that we won 11 football games, champions consecutive two years in a row. A lot of good things."
With the loss, the Utes must now await their fate for its bowl game future, which will be announced on Sunday. Depending on how the conference championship games play out on Saturday, the Utes could earn an at-large bid for the Cotton bowl. But a trip to the Alamo Bowl, or even the Holiday Bowl, seem most likely.