Editor and reporter, Natalie Liebhaber, writes of the Utah press conference from Salt Lake City, Utah Saturday night for FishDuck.com.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham didn’t have any trouble identifying the instant the momentum turned against his Utes in Saturday night’s match-up against the Ducks. At the conclusion of the first quarter, Utah led Oregon 7-0. On the first play of the second quarter, WR Kaelin Clay was on his way to putting another touchdown on the board for Utah — until he dropped the ball at the 1-yard line in premature celebration.
Oregon LB Joe Walker picked up the ball, which sat short of the goal line, and ran 100 yards in the opposite direction to convert the play into the Ducks’ first touchdown. Duck fans really love that kid.
“It really seemed to take the wind out of our sails and take the air out of things for us,” Whittingham said after the game. “We did finally overcome it psychologically and I’m proud of the way our guys hung in there. We had a chance to win, and there was a 14-point swing in the first quarter, but we had a touchdown — what we thought was a touchdown — and it ended up being a touchdown for them [the Ducks]. Those are things we have to correct.”
Clay was understandably devastated post-game, as evidenced by his posture and delivery as he answered questions. “I know how important points are, so I take full responsibility for what just happened,” Clay lamented. “Criticism, blame — whatever you want to drop, I’ll take the blame. I place it all on my shoulders. I got excited and let the moment just get away from me. I just got a little carried away. I feel like it turned the whole game around.”
Whittingham wouldn’t let Clay shoulder all the blame. He said, “We’ve got to coach them better. It falls on coaching … and we’ve not done a good enough job teaching them to hand the ball to the ref when they score a touchdown.”
The Utes never regained the lead, despite pulling back within three points of the No. 4 Ducks at the beginning of the fourth quarter. In a tough game that saw both teams lose key players to injuries, Oregon’s prolific offense put more points on the board and the team as a whole made fewer costly mistakes.
Oregon found success both on the ground and through the air. Even the kicking game was perfect tonight, thanks to Aidan Schneider who was a perfect 3/3 on field goals and 5/5 on PATs. The final score of 51-27 may not be representative of the close battle in which these two teams engaged, but in the end Oregon walked away with a huge victory and solidified itself as the Pac-12 North champion.
“I give them credit,” Whittingham said. “They’ve got a bunch of playmakers and a quarterback who might be the best player in college football. They’re for real. You can’t play a team of Oregon’s caliber, make mistakes, and expect to win.
“We didn’t run the ball as effectively as I thought we would, and they [the Ducks] ran the ball more effectively than I thought they would. That ended up being the difference in the game.”
Utah RB Devontae Booker was the second-best rusher in the Pac-12 coming into this match-up, averaging 123.8 rushing yards per game. Oregon held him to 65 yards on the ground (although he recorded 110 receiving yards, including a touchdown).
Booker agreed it was difficult for the Utes to execute their game plan.
“It was real tough; they [the Ducks] have a good defense,” Booker said. “They were blitzing sometimes, and we’ve just got to do a better job of recognizing it. We fought hard tonight but we didn’t get the W.”
Everyone expected to see a two-quarterback game plan for the Utes, but after starting QB Kendal Thompson suffered what Whittingham said was a season-ending leg injury, QB No. 2 Travis Wilson came into the game and never missed a snap. Wilson, who started for Utah earlier in the season, threw for 297 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions. He rushed for another 14 yards. Whittingham said he thought Wilson responded “very well” when he was unexpectedly thrown unto the game. “I think he went in there and battled,” Whittingham said of his quarterback. “As for positives, it was very good to see us throw the ball a lot better. That was very encouraging.”
Wilson said he wasn’t daunted by having to enter the game earlier than anticipated. He explained that Utah had planned to open up the offense and take more shots downfield. “That’s something that was lacking the last couple of weeks,” Wilson said. “We made some big plays. We started off fast but we made some mistakes as well.”
Although disappointed with another close loss, Wilson remained optimistic with his team’s goals in mind. “We have to never lose hope in any game, and never lose the passion we have for any game,” he said. “We’ll just keep on fighting. We just need to learn from the mistakes and keep on playing.”
In addition to his appreciation for Wilson, Whittingham offered high praise for opposing quarterback Marcus Mariota. The redshirt junior was his typical calm, cool and collected self — even in front of an energetic and rowdy crowd in excess of 47,500 under the lights in Salt Lake City.
“The guy that kept hurting us was the quarterback,” Whittingham said. “Mariota was the one who did most of the damage. He’s really fast and really smart and probably the most athletic player in the country.” Mariota led the Ducks in rushing with 114 yards and one touchdown.
Mariota needed 117 passing yards to become the first Ducks’ QB to pass for 9,000 yards. He passed for 239 yards and three touchdowns.
I asked Whittingham what he said to Mariota after the game.
“I congratulated him and wished him well,” Whittingham said, “I told him I’m hoping they end up winning it all in the Pac-12, and at least make it into the Playoff — which it looks like they have a strong possibility to do now. I told him he’s a heck of a player.”
Utah moves to 6-3 (3-3 Pac-12), and Whittingham will rally his team in preparation for another potentially tough game in a week.
“We’ve gotta move forward,” he said. “We have three games left, with Stanford next week, and we have to come back Monday and find ways to get better.”
“We have to regain focus and move forward,” Booker agreed.
The Pac-12 has become one of the most competitive conferences in all of college football, and there’s no doubt we can look forward to many more years of competitive, hard-fought in-conference games. If Whittingham’s optimism after another tough loss is any indication, we should also expect to see Utah near the top of the standings in the near future.
“We’ve come close to closing the gap in this conference over the past couple years; I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. We just need to continue to recruit speed and athleticism,” Whittingham said.
Top photo from Video