SANTA CLARA, Calif. (ABC4 Sports) – Utah’s College Football Playoff and Rose Bowl hopes were dashed by Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game Friday night at Levi’s Stadium, 37-15.
“I’m proud of this football team for the season they’ve had overall,” Utah head coach Whittingham said. “Obviously tonight was a huge disappointment. But doesn’t detract from the fact that we won 11 football games, champions consecutive two years in a row. A lot of good things . Unfortunately we came up short tonight.”
The number one rushing defense in the country gave up a season-high 239 yards to the Ducks, including 208 by CJ Verdell.
“Disappointing thing is we lost in the one area we’ve been undefeated this year, the line of scrimmage,” Whittingham said. “We didn’t win the line of scrimmage for the first time all season, which is, like I say, disappointing, surprising really.”
Verdell ran for 208 yards and broke open the game with two long touchdown runs in the fourth quarter.
The Utes (11-2, No. 5 CFP) came into the game hoping to make a case for one of the four playoff spots with a conference title but instead got overmatched by Oregon (11-2, No. 13 CFP) and lost their second straight Pac-12 championship game.
“That’s something we’ve been doing well all year,” said safety Terrell Burgess about the Utes run defense. “I guess tonight we just didn’t do it well. 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.”
They fell into a 20-0 hole in the first half and then gave up a 70-yard TD run to Verdell after cutting the deficit to 23-15, paving the way for the winner of the Big 12 title game between Oklahoma and Baylor to get into the playoff as long as No. 1 LSU beats No. 4 Georgia for the SEC championship.
“Really at a loss of words.” said Zack Moss, who rushed for 113 yards and caught a 24-yard touchdown pass. “Like Coach said, we just lost of the battle in trenches where we have been good at all year. We felt confident coming in that we were going to do that again. Their offensive line breaks our D-line at the line, versus their offensive line.”
The Utes got back onto the game with two TD passes by Tyler Huntley in the third quarter. He connected with Zack Moss on a 24-yard play on the opening drive of the half to cut it to 20-7 and then threw a 25-yarder to Samson Nacua late in the third quarter to make it 23-15 following a 2-point conversion.
The Utes then drove into Oregon territory before Huntley was sacked by Keyvon Thibodeaux on second down. Utah ended up punting on fourth-and-4 from the Oregon 40 after being stopped on three fourth downs earlier in the game.
Verdell struck with his big run five plays later and added a 31-yard score later in the fourth against the nation’s top-ranked run defense to put the game out of reach.
The Ducks sent the tone early when they stuffed Moss for no gain on two short-yardage attempts from the Oregon 33 on the opening drive. Oregon drove down and took the lead for good on Verdell’s 3-yard run.
The Utes kept making more mistakes and the Ducks only added to the lead. After forcing a three and out, Oregon got a field goal on the next drive, then blocked a punt after Utah committed a false start on fourth-and-1 before Brady Breeze intercepted a pass in the end zone.
Oregon then struck on a 45-yard strike from Justin Herbert to Johnny Johnson III to make it 17-0, got another fourth down stop and led 20-0 at the break.
Utah will learn its bowl game destination on Sunday, giving the seniors that meant so much to this program one last game to play together.
“The only reason this game is important is because of what we did all season long from start to finish, to make this an important game, to get to this point,” Whittingham said. “They’ve won back-to-back south conference championships. They’re all graduating, which is the most important thing. Every one of them is going to have their degree. The leadership that they brought to this football team has been incredible. Been around a long time, and this is as good of leadership as we’ve ever had. Their maturity, work ethic, just who they are as people. They’re all going to be wildly successful whether it’s in the NFL or in life. It’s a great group of guys.”