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How Utah quashed Oregon again to win the Pac-12, earn Rose Bowl berth

Utah quarterback Cam Rising (7) and teammates celebrate after the Utes beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game.
Utah Utes quarterback Cam Rising (7) and teammates celebrate after the Utes beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

LAS VEGAS — During the Pac-12 Championship Game at Allegiant Stadium Friday night, in front of a national television audience and an army of red in the stands, just about everything was coming up roses for No. 17 Utah.

By the time the game ended, a storm of red and white confetti fluttered everywhere on the field, coach Ute Kyle Whittingham accepted a shiny silver trophy and players clutched actual roses.

Yes, this was a historic, memorable and monumental night — and victory — for the Utes.

For the first time since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, Utah (10-3) captured the conference championship and clinched a coveted spot in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day by stomping Oregon 38-10 before a crowd of 56,511.

“Certainly, it’s a great feeling and it’s something we’ve been working toward for a long time,” Whittingham said. “We’ve been working away at it ever since we joined the league. This is the culmination of a lot of years of hard work and effort. … It’s a history-making football team at Utah.”

“It’s really surreal right now,” said linebacker Devin Lloyd, who earned the game’s Most Valuable Player award after recording a pick six and seven tackles.

It was the second game against No. 10 Oregon over the past two weeks, and the Utes dismantled the Ducks. Again.

“They earned the win tonight,” said Oregon coach Mario Cristobal. Going into game, there were reports that Cristobal could be the next coach at his alma mater, Miami.

For Utah, the sequel was even more satisfying than the original on Nov. 20.

Less than two weeks earlier, Utah smashed Oregon 38-7, and Friday’s performances underscored that that result was no fluke.

Indeed, it was deja vu all over again as the two meetings this season were hauntingly similar and had almost identical final scores.

The Utes outscored the Ducks by a combined 76-17 in the two games. Utah limited Oregon to 63 yards rushing in the first game — and 74 on Friday.

“We had the same mentality and mindset and focus and that look in their eye that they had two weeks ago,” Whittingham said.

“It wouldn’t have mattered who we were playing. The guys were locked in, on a mission. They were not to be denied.”

The third time was the charm for Utah — which proved it could win the Big One.

Twice before over the past four years, the Utes came up short on this stage. But they exorcised their demons and were dominant Friday in the first-ever Pac-12 championship game played in Las Vegas.

Two years ago, the Ducks defeated Utah in the Pac-12 title game in Santa Clara, California, 37-15.

“It’s nice to be on the other side of it,” said defensive lineman Mika Tafua. “Nice to have confetti fall on us.”

The Utes scored more points in the first half Friday than they had in their first two Pac-12 championships games combined.

“A lot of these guys were here in 2019,” Lloyd said. “Understanding the moment was something we preached all week.”

For Oregon (10-3), which beat Ohio State at the Horseshoe way back in mid-September and spent a large chunk of the season ranked in the top 10 — it was No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings when the two teams met the first time — two of its three losses this season came at the hands of the Utes.

“Very proud of the guys of putting the punctuation on the last Pac-12 game of the year,” Whittingham said. “It’s very difficult to beat a team twice, especially a team the caliber of Oregon.

“For our guys to be able to do that 13 days ago and turn around and do it again, that lets you know how tough and determined those guys are.”

Also Friday, Utah secured its fifth 10-win season under Whittingham.

Quarterback Cam Rising completed 15 of 24 passes for 170 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Rising also ran nine times for 61 yards. Tavion Thomas had 18 carries for 63 yards and a pair of TDs.

Britain Covey caught five passes for 72, while Dalton Kincaid had four receptions for 61 yards and a touchdown.

Utah outgained Oregon 361-221 in total offense and converted 6 of 13 on third down attempts.

The Ducks converted only one of their first nine third-down attempts.

The Utes were aggressive and they picked up where they left off two weeks ago by taking the opening kickoff and scoring a touchdown on a 2-yard run by Thomas.

With 4:16 remaining in the first quarter, Butkus Award finalist Devin Lloyd intercepted Anthony Brown and scored a 34-yard touchdown. That pick six put the Utes up 14-0.

“He tried to squeeze it in there, but I felt the route in front of me and I jumped it,” Lloyd said. “It was an incredible feeling to be able to help my team and give them a boost of momentum.”

At that point, it appeared that the Ducks were cooked.

Rising was picked off twice in the second quarter but no harm done for Utah as Oregon failed to cash in.

Noah Sewell intercepted Rising on the first play of the second period, but the Ducks’ drive stalled and they ended up missing a 44-yard field goal.

On the Utes’ next possession, Rising was rocked as he threw a pass, which went high in the air and was picked off by Verone McKinley III.

But Oregon’s offense was shut down again and was forced to punt.

Utah responded aggressively again and drove into Duck territory, highlighted by a 29-yard reception by Dalton Kincaid.

A few plays later, Kincaid caught an 11-yard touchdown pass with 27 seconds remaining to give the Utes a 20-0 lead as the extra point attempt failed.

But Utah wasn’t done yet.

An inexplicable pass by Brown, as he was running toward the sideline and thrown in traffic, was picked off by Malone Mataele gave the Utes another shot to add more points.

And Utah did just that, as Jadon Redding booted a 50-yard field goal as time expired.

The Utes went into the locker room at halftime up 23-0, almost matching the 28-0 halftime lead they had in the first matchup in Salt Lake City.

Oregon finally got on the scoreboard with 10:42 left in the third quarter but that was just window-dressing.

Later, Utah extended its lead to 31-3 on a drive that saw Rising gallop 41 yards to the Duck 4-yard line. One play later, TJ Pledger blasted into the end zone.

Thomas scored another touchdown in the fourth quarter, adding some more style points for the Utes.

An Oregon touchdown with five minutes left was cosmetic at best.

It was Utah’s night and the Utes celebrated on the field when the clock ran out.

Despite bitter finishes in this game in previous seasons, this time, Utah punched its ticket to Pasadena on Jan. 1 against the Big Ten champions.

Michigan and Iowa meet Saturday in the Big Ten Championship game. If the Wolverines win, Utah could face the Hawkeyes. If Michigan loses, the Utes could face Ohio State.

“I’m just filled with joy and excitement for everyone on the team who has sacrificed the last nine months,” Lloyd said.

But this championship was much longer in the making, dating back to when the Utes joined the league a decade ago.

Now, it’s on to the Rose Bowl.