‘No margin for error’: Utah-Oregon showdown offers intrigue, subplots aplenty
A year after back-to-back beatdowns at the hands of the Utes, the Ducks come face-to-face again with the program that spoiled their 2021 season — with Pac-12 title game implications on the line
What an odyssey Oregon football has experienced over the past 12 months.
Almost exactly a year ago, the Ducks, boasting a big upset at Ohio State on their resume, were ranked No. 3 and had their sights set on a coveted spot in the College Football Playoff.
But Utah ruined those dreams with a dominating 38-7 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Then a couple of weeks later, the Utes hammered Oregon 38-10 in the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas.
Coach Mario Cristobal ended up taking the job at the University of Miami, his alma mater, and Oregon hired the defensive coordinator of the eventual national champions, Georgia — Dan Lanning.
Later, the program signed an Auburn quarterback grad transfer, the mercurial Bo Nix.
In the 2022 season-opener, the Ducks faced Lanning’s former team in Atlanta. The Bulldogs, now ranked No. 1 in the country, humiliated Oregon, 49-3.
At that point, many wrote off the Ducks.
But they won eight consecutive games, including a 41-20 home victory over BYU, and a 45-30 win at home over UCLA, as Nix became a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate.
Once again, like last year, Oregon had pieced together a strong CFP resume. It had climbed all the way to No. 6 in the CFP rankings.
Then last Saturday, No. 24 Washington upset the Ducks 37-34 in Eugene, snapping Oregon’s 23-game home winning streak.
Nix suffered an injury in the fourth quarter and though he returned, his status is uncertain.
So it is that a year after back-to-back beatdowns at the hands of Utah, Oregon comes face-to-face with the Utes again, in a somewhat similar spot.
Utah visits the Ducks Saturday (8:30 p.m. MST, ESPN) at Autzen Stadium on Senior Night. The two teams boast identical records (8-2, 6-1).
While the Huskies ruined Oregon’s playoff hopes, the Ducks can still capture a Pac-12 championship and earn a Rose Bowl berth.
Can Utah crush Oregon’s Pac-12 title hopes again this year?
Or can the Ducks exact revenge on the Utes?
Given what happened last weekend against Washington, what is Oregon’s mindset going into this huge showdown in Eugene?
Lanning said Monday that the loss to the Huskies was a painful learning experience. But the Ducks rebounded strong after that loss to Georgia. And they plan to do the same again.
“We didn’t let Georgia beat us twice. I’m not going to let Washington beat us twice. I’m not going to let that happen,” he said. “My focus is, we’re playing a dang good Utah team, one of the most complete teams we’ve played this season. We can’t do that by crying over spilled milk.”
What does Utah coach Kyle Whittingham expect from Oregon? Could that loss to the Huskies make the Ducks more dangerous?
“If they would have won (last Saturday), you’ve got all kinds of momentum going, a nine-game win streak, feeling really good and confident,” he said. “If they lose, then their backs are to the wall just like the rest of us now … There’s no margin for error for anybody. Maybe that provides them with more fuel. It could go either way.”
During its eight-game winning streak, Oregon scored at least 40 points in each of those contests. The Ducks scored 34 against Washington in a physical, intense rivalry game. Oregon racked up 592 yards of offense — and they gave up 522.
The outcome against Washington was heavily influenced by a controversial decision by Lanning and his staff. The game was knotted at 34-apiece with 1:30 remaining when the Ducks opted to go for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 34-yard line.
At that point, Nix was on the sideline with an apparent ankle injury so Oregon turned to redshirt freshman QB Ty Thompson.
Lanning didn’t want to give the ball back to Washington’s prolific offense. So he tried to maintain possession.
But that decision backfired — running back Noah Whittington slipped and lost yardage.
The Huskies capitalized on the short field as senior placekicker Peyton Henry booted a 43-yard field goal with 51 seconds remaining.
That turned out to be the game-winner, although in the waning seconds, Nix returned to the game and led the Ducks on a drive that ended as time expired.
That failed fourth-down attempt probably will be second-guessed for a while in the state of Oregon.
Lanning, a first-year head coach, took responsibility for the call — and the loss.
“This game falls 100% on me,” he said after the game.
Oregon has been aggressive all season long, so that decision was consistent. But to do it without Nix in the lineup?
The Ducks are eager to apply lessons learned from the setback to Washington.
“When you’re in an environment where it’s about growth — we’ve actually experienced something similar before where it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go — our guys attacked it really well and our coaches attacked it really well,” he said. “The only thing I know to do when things don’t go right is go to work. That’s always worked for me.”
Despite the loss to Washington, Whittingham knows how good this Oregon team is.
“They lost their first game to Georgia and their last game. In between, they were playing lights-out,” he said. “They didn’t play poorly against Washington, either. Washington just played exceptionally well.”
Of course, Lanning wasn’t at the helm last year when the Utes outscored the Ducks 76-17. But he knows how much his players care about this rematch with Utah.
“This game means a ton. Our guys are playing for each other. They want to do well for each other,” he said. “They all have a (bad) taste from last season. Some of the guys were here and some of them weren’t. They want to perform to their abilities.”
Meanwhile, how do the Utes prepare for a coach like Lanning, whom they haven’t faced before?
“Just like we’ve done every week. We watch the film and the film doesn’t lie,” Whittingham said. “That’s what tells you what you need to know and what you have to defend or what you have to attack and how they’re going to attack you. It’s no different than any other week. … They’ve got good players and good schemes. He’s off to a really good start.”
If Oregon can avenge those two losses to Utah a year ago, Lanning could have a strong finish to his first season in Eugene — with a possible Pac-12 championship and trip to the Rose Bowl.
Meanwhile, Utah has its sights on a Pac-12 title and a Rose Bowl berth.
The Utes and Ducks have been on a collision course all season. Once again, this game could define the 2022 campaign for both programs.
Utes on the air
No. 13 Utah (8-2, 6-1)
at No. 6 Oregon (8-2, 6-1)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700