Utah had no answer for Oregon on Friday night.
The Ducks got out in front early thanks to some inspired defensive play and phenomenal play calling and execution on offense, and they never looked back. Oregon went in to the half up 20-0, and when Utah got the score to 23-15 with 1:13 to play in the game, the entire Oregon roster responded with a 14-0 run to ice the game.
Mario Cristobal returned Oregon to the Pac 12 championship game and came away with the win despite being the underdog. Utah looked less physical, less inspired and less interested in the game. They spent the previous week hearing about how much better than Oregon they were, and it showed.
Utah came into the game with the best statistical defense in the Pac-12. They had passed the eye test up to the start of the game as well, with their only loss coming in a shootout with USC. (Without their star RB Zach Moss)
But Friday night in Santa Clara, the Oregon Ducks made the stingy Ute defense look average. Utah was giving up around 60 yards per game rushing, Oregon ran for 239. CJ Verdell ran for 208 yards, good for second in conference championship history, behind Duck’ great LaMichael James.
When asked about the porous rushing defense, Utah safety Terrell Burgess said, “I mean, there were some gaps that were there. We didn’t make tackles, we didn’t hold them to what we thought we should have.” Burgess’ assessment was accurate, as on the opening Duck drive, several tackles were missed en route to a touchdown and nearly as many rushing yards as the Utah defense gave up per game all season. On the 70-yard Verdell run that essentially took Utah out of the game, the running back exploded through an impressive hole in the line, broke an arm tackle, and took the ball in to the end zone.
Oregon ran Utah over. The Utes were supposed to be bigger, stronger and meaner in the trenches, but they got manhandled by the veteran Duck offensive line. “I guess you could say they beat us with our strength, where our strength lied,” said Kyle Whittingham in the post-game press conference.
The passing attack was also effective, but less so. Justin Herbert threw for only 193 yards, but he had at least four accurate passes to open receivers dropped. He was sacked only once, and threw only one touchdown pass. Herbert also ran the ball several times on designed passes due to the Utah man coverage.
Overall, the offensive game plan kept Oregon in front from the get go, and Marcus Arroyo should be commended for calling an effective drive to kill the Utah momentum early in the fourth quarter.
The Oregon defense played one of their strongest games of the season. Utah finished the game with 64 plays for only 309 yards, good for only 4.8 yards per play. The defense had six — count that six — sacks against a very talented Utah offensive line. Oregon stopped the Utes on all four of their fourth down attempts, and held them to 4 for 14 on third down. This was one of Andy Avalos’ most impressive games as the Ducks’ defensive coordinator.
Kayvon Thibodeaux had a whopping 2.5 sacks, despite Cristobal substituting him on nearly every other down for the entire game. Bryson Young had a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss to go with his eight total tackles.
Whittingham said, “Those linebackers are tough and active,” when asked about how much pressure the Oregon defense generated. That was true on Friday as three of the top six Ducks in tackles were linebackers. The defense especially succeeded when stunting, as the offensive line would retreat and collapse the pocket prior to the defenders fully engaging.
Brady Breeze played like a man on a mission, finishing with a team high nine tackles and an interception. Breeze’s first quarter interception in the end zone lit a fire under the Oregon Ducks, and they ran through the Utes from then on.
Champions at Last
Oregon last won a Pac-12 championship when Marcus Mariota was in his final season in Eugene. The Duck legend then took Oregon all the way to the national championship game. Since that 2014 campaign, Oregon has had three head coaches, four defensive coordinators and two of the worst defenses in the modern era. They ended a 12-game winning streak against their most hated rival, and lost four straight to a pirate in central Washington.
But Friday night, Cristobal did what he was hired to do; he showed that Oregon is the toughest program in the conference, and won the conference championship. He brought a conference title to a senior class that started 4-8 as freshmen.
Now he has one more game to prove that this iteration of the Ducks is for real.
San Jose, California Top Photo by Eugene Johnson
Ryan Robertson is a defense contractor for the United States Marine Corps. A lifelong Duck fan from Grants Pass, he joined the Army out of high school. After four years as an Intelligence Analyst he decided it was time to further his education and pay more attention to his Ducks. One of Ryan’s first memories is of watching the Ducks, led by Joey Harrington, beating up on the Utah Utes in 2001. He is studying to be a Human Rights Investigator for the UN and intends to attend the U of O for graduate school in a few years. His grandfather ran track at Oregon in the ‘50s. He loves the Ducks, and has a passionate interest in reading every scrap of analysis centered around the football team.
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