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Utes gets out-Utah-ed by Oregon on the line of scrimmage, fall short in Pac-12 title game for second year in a row

Utah disappointed and surprised to lose in the trenches

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The Oregon band cheers on the Ducks during the Pac-12 Championship game against Utah and Oregon at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.. on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Snap, crackle and pop.

That, in a nutshell, is what happened to the fifth-ranked Utah Utes in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

Oregon snapped Utah’s eight-game winning streak with a 37-15 victory Friday night at Levi’s Stadium. The Ducks crackled the Utes’ hopes for a conference crown and popped any plans they had for inclusion in the College Football Playoff. 

“First of all I’m proud of this football team for the season they’ve had overall,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “Obviously tonight was a huge disappointment, but it doesn’t detract from they won 11 football games.”

Whittingham noted the back-to-back Pac-12 South titles and how they just came up short. How it happened was surprising. 

Utah came in leading the nation in rushing defense and wound up allowing Oregon to run for 239 yards. Running back CJ Verdell, the game’s MVP, finished with 208 yards rushing and three touchdowns. 

The Ducks controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Their defense sacked quarterback Tyler Huntley six times.   

“The disappointing thing is we lost the game really in the one area we’ve been undefeated this year — the line of scrimmage,” Whittingham said. “We did not win the line of scrimmage for the first time all season, which was, like I said, disappointing and surprising, really.”   

Whittingham credited Oregon’s offensive line and the front seven on defense for their physical play.

Utah may have been out-Utah-ed by the Ducks. Oregon ran the ball well on offense and applied a lot of pressure on defense.

“There were some gaps that were there then we didn’t make tackles,” said safety Terrell Burgess. “We didn’t hold them to what we thought we should.”

Oregon jumped out to a 20-0 lead in the first half. The Ducks, who scored on their first two drives, built solid advantages in total offense (263-178), passing yards (178-75), first downs (13-7) and time of possession (15:44-14:16) over the opening quarters.

“We didn’t have an ideal start by any means,” Whittingham said.

Utah’s seven possessions in the first half ended with four punts, two loss on downs and an interception. Oregon, meanwhile, kicked it back just twice — bookending the punts with a touchdown and a field goal. The initial outburst featured a 3-yard run by Verdell and a 23-yard kick by Camden Lewis. In the second quarter, Lewis added a 30-yard field goal for the Ducks after quarterback Justin Herbert teamed with Johnny Johnson III on a 45-yard scoring strike.

Down, but not completely out, the Utes climbed back into contention following intermission. The offense put its first points on the board with 10:52 to go in the third quarter. A 24-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Huntley to Zack Moss led to a deficit reduction of 20-7. The defense did its part by forcing Oregon to punt on its first two drives.

The comeback bid, though, was stalled for a time by a third loss on downs by the offense and another field goal by the Ducks. The twists made it 23-7. However, the Utes responded before the third quarter was complete. Huntley and receiver Samson Nacua combined on a 25-yard touchdown toss and a two-point conversion that followed.

Oregon took a 23-15 lead into the fourth quarter. That’s when the Ducks pulled away with touchdown runs of 70 and 31 yards by Verdell down the stretch. Utah’s fourth-quarter possessions concluded with a pair of punts, another interception and one more loss on downs.

“We just have to come back here next year until we get it right,” Whittingham said. “We’ll just keep coming back until we get it right. So that’s where we’re at.”

Oregon (11-2) earned an invitation to the Rose Bowl with the victory. Utah (11-2), meanwhile, could end up in the Alamo Bowl (or even the Holiday Bowl again). The Utes’ bowl destination will be cleared up on Sunday when selections are announced. There’s still an outside chance of a New Year’s Six bowl, but the margin of Friday’s setback will likely prove costly.

Utah entered the game fifth in the CFP rankings, one spot out of the national semifinals.

Losing a second straight Pac-12 Championship Game — the Utes fell to Washington 10-3 last year — hurt on many levels.

Moss said he was at a loss for words.

“This one definitely hurts,” he said. “But we’ve got another game, so we’ll go ahead and shift our focus there.”