SALT LAKE CITY — Flex Friday turned into another soft Saturday for the Ducks at the line of scrimmage.
Coaches and players bragged about the program’s new Alabama-inspired strength and conditioning program all summer, but Oregon continued to get pushed around during a painful 32-25 loss to Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Behind a battered offensive line, quarterback Justin Herbert was sacked four times and the running game mustered only 117 yards on 32 attempts (3.7 yards per).
Travis Dye improved those numbers in the second half by averaging 7.3 yards per carry and finishing with 66 yards after replacing an injured CJ Verdell.
The Ducks (6-4, 3-4), who led the Pac-12 every season from 2006-15, are 62nd nationally in rushing (171.6 ypg) entering the final home game of the season against Arizona State on Saturday at Autzen Stadium (7:30 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
Coach Mario Cristobal blamed another slow start, Oregon trailed 10-0 at the end of the first quarter, for preventing the offense from getting back on track.
“The first drive of the game, we drop the ball. That was a big play,” Cristobal said of Tony Brooks-James letting Herbert’s first pass slip through his hands. “The second drive we feel we’ve got it protected, but the running game gets beat and there’s a sack fumble. Those things get magnified and you get thrown off schedule.
“You just have to prevent yourself from getting away from the game plan.”
It was business as usual for Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, despite losing his starting quarterback (Tyler Huntley) and running back (Zach Moss) to injuries last week.
In his first career start, Jason Shelley threw for 262 yards and rushed for two touchdowns. Armand Shyne finished with a career-high 174 yards rushing.
Oregon, which was fourth nationally in rushing defense after beating up on a weak nonconference schedule and containing Stanford’s hobbled Bryce Love, now ranks 54th (seventh in the Pac-12), allowing 152.1 yards per game.
“We struggled to stop the run (Saturday), and I was a big part of why they had a great game on the ground,” nose guard Jordon Scott said after Utah finished with 232 yards on the ground and 494 total yards. “I’ve got to do better. … If we want to be the team we want to be, we can’t have ups and downs.”
After losing their last three road games, the Ducks (6-4, 3-4) are tied with California for fourth place in the North Division.
The surging Sun Devils (6-4, 4-3) have been playing to win the games under Herm Edwards. Arizona State has won three consecutive games and can clinch the South Division with wins over Oregon and Arizona to close the regular season.
“A lot of things went wrong,” Edwards said after his team escaped with a 31-28 win over Chip Kelly’s UCLA Bruins. “But I think our guys are starting to mature and just hang in there and keep fighting, because that’s what football is all about.”
Cristobal will have to rally his team, which lost more key players to injury against the physical Utes.
Injuries to Verdell and Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who spent Saturday night at a Salt Lake City hospital to deal with what Cristobal described as a “pretty extensive” leg contusion, leave the Ducks thin at running back.
Steven Jones became the second true freshman to start at left tackle this season and appeared to suffer a concussion. Penei Sewell remains out indefinitely with a lower-leg injury.
Sampson Niu became the third inside linebacker to go down at the position opposite Troy Dye, joining Kaulana Apelu and Isaac Slade-Matautia. True freshman Adrian Jackson was also injured late in the game after recovering a blocked punt to set up a touchdown.
“We’ve got a good chunk of injuries,” Cristobal said. “It’s that time of year where you’ve got to buckle up and keep going. I think both teams really fought hard.”