SALT LAKE CITY — One bizarre play. That’s all it took to alter the outcome of Saturday’s game between fifth-ranked Oregon and 20th-ranked Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
It provided enough of a shift to propel the Ducks to a 51-27 victory over the Utes.
"I thought we played well early in the game. We had a few sacks and a touchdown drive," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "You just can't play a team of that caliber and expect to win with the mistakes we made."
Oregon (9-1, 6-1) averted a two-touchdown deficit when linebacker Joe Walker returned a fumble 100 yards for a score with 14:43 remaining in the second quarter — capping an unusual play that began with so much promise for Utah (6-3, 3-3).
It started with quarterback Travis Wilson, who replaced injured starter Kendal Thompson in the previous series, connecting on a long pass to Kaelin Clay. The receiver covered 78 yards while heading for the end zone. He then inexplicably let go of the ball on the 1-yard line. It fell to the turf as he raced across the goal line, eventually following him there.
Walker scooped it up and was surrounded by a group of Ducks while making the journey to the opposite end zone.
The painful series of events left the Utes reeling.
"I know how important points are, especially against a team like this. I take full responsibility for what happened tonight," Clay said. "I will take the criticism and the blame. It was just one of those things. I got excited and let the moment get away from me. Again, I take full responsibility for this."
Things started off well for Utah. Clay returned the opening kickoff 41 yards to give the Utes possession near midfield. Thompson then led a nine-play scoring drive that culminated with an 8-yard touchdown run by Bubba Poole.
Leading 7-0 after Andy Phillips added the PAT, Utah’s defense weathered a 61-yard run by star quarterback Marcus Mariota on Oregon’s first play. The drive quickly stalled, however, when a pass interference call followed and moved the Ducks back 15 yards to the Utah 29. Shortly thereafter, nose tackle Lowell Lotulelei sacked Mariota on back-to-back plays — knocking Oregon out of scoring range and forcing a punt.
The momentum, however, proved to be short-lived.
On the ensuing series, the Utes lost both Thompson and the ball. One play after losing Thompson to a knee injury, Devontae Booker fumbled after a 5-yard run. Linebacker Danny Mattingly jarred the ball loose and safety Reggie Daniels recovered the ball at the Utah 48.
Although the Utes recovered and eventually forced a loss on downs by stopping a Mariota run 16 yards short of the goal line and 3 yards away from a first down, they would soon take an emotional roller-coaster ride from high to low with Clay’s improbable fumble.
It happened on the first play of the second quarter and allowed the Ducks to pull even at 7-7.
Before the half was complete, Oregon added 17 more points to take control of the game. The go-ahead score was a 3-yard pass from Mariota to wide receiver Dwayne Stanford on fourth down.
The Ducks would later add a 6-yard scoring strike from Mariota to tight end Pharaoh Brown and a 39-yard field goal by Aidan Schneider to build a 24-7 advantage.
Utah responded with a 32-yard field goal by Phillips as time expired to make it 24-10 at the break.
In the second half, the Utes once again got off to a productive start. They forced a takeaway on Oregon’s initial possession. Defensive end Nate Orchard jarred the ball away from Mariota and safety Brian Blechen recovered it.
Utah later cashed in on the turnover when Phillips made a 28-yard field goal. The drive was costly, though, as the Utes lost wide receiver Tim Patrick to a lower leg injury.
After Oregon retaliated with a 31-yard field goal by Schneider, the Ducks managed to put an end to the nation’s longest active passing streak without an interception. Linebacker Tyson Coleman ended Wilson’s run after 181 throws.
It didn’t lead to any points, however, opening the door for the Utes to climb back into contention. They did so with 3:28 to go in the third when Wilson and Booker teamed up on a 27-yard touchdown pass.
Oregon fired back just 48 seconds into the fourth on a 42-yard field goal by Schneider.
Trailing 30-20, Utah answered with a five-play, 83-yard touchdown drive. Wilson set up the score with a 58-yard pass to Clay. The drive ended with a 13-yard TD throw to tight end Westlee Tonga.
After closing the gap to three, though, the game slipped away from the Utes down the stretch.
Oregon finished with a flurry. The Ducks scored three touchdowns and intercepted Wilson once again in the final 10:29. They scored on a 34-yard pass from Mariota to Stanford; a 1-yard run by Mariota; and an 11-yard run by Royce Freeman.
"A gutty win. A gutty, gutty win by our team," said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich. "A huge turn of events, obviously, on the fumble going into the end zone. A great lesson for all of us."