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How No. 23 Utah paddled No. 3 Oregon right out of College Football Playoff contention

The Utes clinched the Pac-12 South with the win, setting up a possible rematch with Oregon in a couple of weeks

Utah students hold signs and cheer as Utah and Oregon play an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Utah won 38-7.
Utah students hold signs and cheer as Utah and Oregon play an NCAA football game at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. Utah won 38-7.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Almost two years ago, Oregon ruined Utah’s shot at a berth in the College Football Playoff in the Pac-12 Championship Game in dominant fashion.

Saturday night, in prime time on national television, the Utes returned the favor.

No. 23 Utah overwhelmed No. 3 Oregon 38-7 in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 52,724 — a new school record — at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Going into the weekend, the Ducks seemed to be in control of their own destiny in terms of securing a spot in the CFP, but they quacked under the pressure.

Or under the weight of the Utes’ offense, defense and special teams.

“From start to finish, excellent execution and physicality,” said coach Kyle Whittingham, who became the winningest coach in school history with 142 wins, surpassing the legendary Ike Armstrong. “(Utah’s players) just weren’t going to be denied tonight.”

Utah jumped out to a 28-0 halftime lead and put the hammer down on Oregon, earning a measure of revenge for that 2019 setback.

“It was definitely on our minds but this is a completely different team than the 2019 team,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd. “Obviously, it still hurts and we still have that nasty taste in our mouths, but we were completely confident going into this game. We understand that was in the past.”

With the win, the Utes clinched the Pac-12 South title for the third time in four years and earned a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game in Las Vegas on Dec. 3.

Utah (8-3, 7-1), which has now won seven of its last eight games, and Oregon (9-2, 6-2) are expected to meet again that night with a conference title and a Rose Bowl berth at stake.

“I think that we probably angered them,” wide receiver Britain Covey said of a probable rematch.

That might be true — but for now, the Utes are enjoying this moment.

Fans were asked nicely in the waning moments to stay in their seats and not to rush the field when the game ended.

But that was like telling kids to stay in their beds on Christmas morning. Many of the fans rushed the field and celebrated the win.

To get this victory, Utah used a balanced attack, enjoyed a 21-point second quarter, saw Tavion Thomas run for three touchdowns (and set a school record for single-season TD runs with 17) and controlled the special teams battle with a blocked field goal and an 78-yard punt return for a touchdown by — who else? — Covey.

What didn’t go right for the Utes?

The defense held Oregon to 63 yards rushing, while running back Travis Dye had just 29 yards on six carries.

“The defense did a phenomenal job. They only got 63 yards rushing,” Whittingham said. “That was the primary objective for this game, to stop the run. We felt if we did that, we had a good chance to have a good outcome.”

“We’re both teams that pride themselves on running the ball, being physical at the line of scrimmage,” Lloyd said. “It was a battle of the trenches. We preached that whoever wins the trenches would most likely win the game.”

Utah, meanwhile, rushed for 208 yards, led by Thomas’ 94 yards and three TDs.

“He’s got a nose for the end zone, no doubt about that,” Whittingham said of Thomas.

The Utes also got 46 yards from T.J. Pledger as the offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage.

“We talked about being physical all week,” said quarterback Cam Rising, who completed 10 of 18 passes for 178 yards. “We really wanted to set the tone up front. I think they did that. That’s why we were so successful.”

“Our offensive linemen were doing their job today,” Thomas said. “They made it easy for me to see the holes.”

Whittingham had a game plan to try to neutralize Oregon’s defensive end star, Kayvon Thibodeaux.

“We had some schemes to nudge him and chip him,” he said. “The tight ends and running backs and tackles did an outstanding job. Bam Olaseni has really become a dominant force at the left tackle position.”

Tight end Brant Kuithe caught five passes for 118 yards and Covey hauled in three passes for 36 yards.

“We came out and started running the ball pretty hard,” Rising said. “They started to load up the box and then we had to switch it up and start running the play-action. It worked to a T.”

On top of that, the Utes converted on 11 of 14 third-down attempts and converted on all five trips to the red zone.

While Utah stalled on its game-opening drive, the next time the Utes got the ball, they scored on a 13-play drive that featured 11 running plays. On third and 9 from the 10, Thomas ran for a touchdown to put Utah ahead 7-0.

Later in the quarter, Cole Bishop blocked a 36-yard Oregon field goal attempt.

The Utes added another touchdown with 5:08 remaining in the first half on a one-yard touchdown run by Rising.

The Ducks completed a 50-yard pass to put them in Utah territory, but they failed to capitalize as the drive ended when a 41-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right.

On the Utes’ ensuing series, Rising completed a 49-yard pass to Kuithe, then four plays later, Thomas ran into the end zone from the 4-yard line. That not only gave Utah a 21-zip advantage but it also marked Thomas’ 16th rushing touchdown of the season, breaking a single-season school record.

The Ducks couldn’t move the ball on the Ute defense and Whittingham wisely called a timeout to force Oregon to punt with 17 seconds remaining in the second quarter.

That was a fatal mistake.

Covey ended the half with an exclamation point — and six points — on an electrifying 78-yard punt return for a touchdown to make it 28-0 for Utah at halftime.

“Covey’s a dangerous guy. We had a block on, too. He did most of that on his own. He got some key blocks along the way but it wasn’t set up as a return,” Whittingham said. “Those two touchdowns were scored at the end of the first half really gave us a ton of momentum going into halftime. That was probably the biggest key to the game.”

Oregon didn’t get on the scoreboard until the third quarter and the Utes stopped the Ducks one final time at the Ute 9-yard line with four minutes remaining.

While the celebration heightened when the game ended, Utah knows that there’s more yet to be done this season.

The Utes host Colorado in the regular season finale next Friday and then it will be on to the Pac-12 title game.

“We ain’t done yet,” Thomas said.

EXTRA POINTS: Center Paul Maile and defensive back Faybian Marks did not play for the Utes due to injuries … Bishop and Vonte Davis led Utah with seven tackles each … The Utes out-gained the Ducks 386-294 in total offense.