By Morris Phillips
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — That noise which always connects itself to a really big football game begins as whispers then morphs into a crescendo of chirpiness as the kickoff approaches.
That noise finally managed to irritate the insular Oregon Ducks.
Not only did their opponent have everything to play for–a BCS berth, a Pac-12 Championship, the unofficial title of Salt Lake’s most formidable team of the new millennium–and the Ducks little if anything, the word was the Utah Utes were the more physical team, with the inference that the Ducks were… soft.
“Quite frankly, I think maybe these guys all week long got a little bit tired of hearing we weren’t the more physical team,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said. “It gives you a little bit of an edge.”
That edge grew into a force for Oregon in the first quarter of the Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday. In succession, the Ducks stuffed the Utes on 4th-and-1 at the Oregon 33, forced a three-and-out, blocked a punt, then on Utah’s fourth possession, picked off quarterback Tyler Huntley, who had only thrown two interceptions all season.
Although the Ducks led just 10-0 after the first quarter, the tone had been set. Oregon was settling in, Utah was on its heels–maybe for the first time in 2019.
“We didn’t win the line of scrimmage for the first time all season, which is, like I say, disappointing. Surprising, really,” coach Kyle Whittingham admitted.
The Ducks would increase their lead to 20-0 at the half, then see the Utes surge briefly to trail just 23-15 near the end of the third, only to see the Ducks recharge in the fourth, and sprint to a 37-15 win that sends them to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl as conference champs.
Utah, riding the momentum of being the nation’s most dominate defense team statistically, needed a win Friday to put themselves in prime position for a date with No. 1 LSU in the national semifinals. Instead, the Pac-12 South champs, with 10 players likely headed to the NFL, will settle for yet to be officially determined date in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.
The result was shocking, the numbers even more so.
Utah allowed more than 17 points in a win only once all season, that in their close call at Washington where they prevailed 33-28. In their only loss to USC, they allowed the Trojans 30 points. Other than two, previously-mentioned results, they pitched two shutouts, smashed Oregon State 52-7, pounced on UCLA, 49-3, and stuffed Arizona and Arizona State by a combined score of 56-10.
Huntley put himself into the periphery of the Heisman discussion by throwing 16 touchdowns and only two interceptions. In part, Utah’s defense dominated because their offense never relinquished the ball. Only twice did the Utes fail to win the time of possession–both times by less than a minute in games against UCLA and Northern Illinois they won easily. Utah’s last three wins came by a combined 104 points.
But on Friday, Huntley threw two interceptions while being sacked six times, the time of possession was virtually even, and Utah never snapped the ball inside the Oregon 20-yard line. Yes, no red zone opportunities.
Five, first half Utah possessions reached Oregon’s 40-yard line, but none went past the 30.
Did the bright lights of the moment dull the Utes? Did they get caught looking ahead to Joe Burrow and LSU? Whittingham said no.
“I think our guys handled it the right way,” said Whittingham. “We just didn’t play very well tonight.”
Oregon saw their own national aspirations dashed two weeks earlier in a sluggish loss at Arizona State. Then they looked better, but not much better, in beating Oregon State to conclude the regular season.
Few saw their superior effort on Friday coming. Not even some their own fans in attendance. But on the game’s first possession, the Ducks marched down the field in nine plays, culminating with C.J. Verdell’s 3-yard run for a touchdown. Verdell was just getting started, with Utah as close as they would get, down 23-15, Verdell broke through the line of scrimmage and raced for a 70-yard TD run. As the culmination of Verdell’s night in which he would rush for 208 yards and be named the game’s MVP, he would score a third time to put the game on ice, from 31 yards out with 2:33 remaining.
“It was a little bit of everything. It starts with the players, their commitment to establishing the run,” Cristobal said. “Their film study, the way they practiced this week. The way that the line blocked. The way that (quarterback Justin Herbert) carried out his fakes and ran with the ball as well.”
Utah held 11 of their 12 opponents under 100 yards rushing, only to surrender 239 to Verdell, Herbert and the Ducks.
The Utes loss bring clarity to the BCS picture in that only two scenarios seem plausible heading into the season’s final Saturday. If Georgia can knock off LSU, they’ll be the fourth entrant. If Georgia fails, whoever wins the Big 12, Oklahoma or Baylor, will be in.
For Clemson and Ohio State, a win in their conference championships will land them a date against each other as the brackets No. 2 and 3 seeds. Undefeated LSU will probably qualify, win or lose.