In the end, you have to credit the Oregon defense that forced six field goals when Utah might have scored touchdowns instead, keeping the game from becoming a runaway.
What was left for the Ducks was a 32-25 defeat in Salt Lake City, bringing Oregon's record to 6-4 and allowing Utah to get to 7-3 and still be a prime time player in the race for the Southern Division crown of the Pac-12 Conference.
The Ducks' defense started poorly, allowing a touchdown and two field goals on the Utes’ first four drives. But, step-by-step, it played tougher and brought Utah’s momentum to a standstill. As has become commonplace, Oregon’s offense was totally stifled, gaining only four yards in the first quarter. But as the playbook was opened and Herbert given the green light, the Ducks began to lurch forward.
The halftime score was 19-7, Utah. It could have easily been 16-10, but the Ducks made too many mistakes and could not come up with the right play at the right time on offense or defense. At the beginning of the game, Oregon’s defense gave feeble resistance, missing tackles and misplaying a rushing quarterback, but still made enough plays to keep the Utes from running away with the game.
It did not help that quarterback Justin Herbert and the Duck offense was impotent, getting only four yards in the first quarter with two three-and-outs. Herbert missed some passes he should have connected, but he was also sacked three times, including one where he fumbled when hit by a rusher who came up behind him after his running back did not finish his pass block.
Utah’s quarterback, Jason Shelley, in his first ever start, looked like a Heisman candidate as the Utes ran roughshod over the Ducks — it looked like Oregon’s offense back in the days when it could always be counted on to move the ball and score at will.
The Duck secondary, particularly the safeties, were slow to react and seemed to be timid in tackling. In one long run, the Utah running back sprinted down the sideline while two defensive backs were running parallel to him; you had to wonder why the defenders didn’t just take an angle toward the back and tackle him. They were conceding too much yardage.
Interestingly, linebacker Troy Dye lined up as a cornerback covering a wide receiver man-to-man at least on three occasions, most likely a move to help defend the fade route shorter defensive backs have struggled to cover. It seemed to work on those situations as Shelley did not attempt the fade route. This was a good move by the defensive coaches.
While looking shaky in the beginning, the Duck defense stiffened twice inside its own 5-yard line and forced the Utes to go for field goals instead of touchdowns. It was almost a miracle that Oregon went into the locker room allowing only one touchdown in the first half.
Meanwhile, Adam Stack, Oregon’s field-goal kicker, missed a chip shot attempt late in the second quarter that seemed to take some wind out of the Ducks' sails. Oregon coach Mario Cristobal’s play caller has enough problems with a field-goal kicker who can’t kick to a high-school level. That means you have to go for touchdowns instead of the best thing, which is to get three points out of a drive that stalled.
The Ducks scored a touchdown on their next-to-last drive of the first half and then missed a field goal. That hurt. The first two drives of the second half were good for a touchdown and field goal that put Oregon within two points. Utah came back to score a field goal to make it 22-17.
The Ducks blocked a punt to the Utah 3-yard line and scored a touchdown to actually go ahead, 25-22. This was the time for Oregon’s defense to stand tall, but some missed coverage in the secondary allowed the Utes to score the go-ahead touchdown on a 75-yard march.
Give Oregon credit for standing in there and not giving in when it would be easy to get your head down. The defense gave up too many yards: 494 total offense, 232 yards rushing and 262 yards passing. One might have expected Oregon’s defense to do better with the Utes' regular quarterback sidelined by injury along with their leading rusher. The Ducks could not stop the replacements and the result was defeat.
The defensive game plan should have been to crush those two players and not let them get any kind of momentum or confidence.
Oregon’s run offense was nonexistent in the early part of the game, averaging 1.3 yards on first-down rushes, but got going as Herbert had success throwing the ball. Maybe it’s that the pass game sets up the running attack instead of vice-versa. Running back Travis Dye slashed for some yards outside the tackles in impressive fashion after Herbert loosened up the defense.
Oregon’s pass offense is too Dillon Mitchell-oriented. Late in the game, Herbert’s final fourth-down pass attempt was knocked away from Mitchell by a Utah defensive back who, as the Pac-12 television commentator commentated, “everyone knows who Herbert’s going to throw to.” Maybe it’s time for the Ducks to start running a pass offense that sets up more receivers besides Mitchell to catch a pass. In the long run, it would make it easier for Mitchell to get open himself. Weapon-wise, the Ducks’ leading threats are too one-dimensional and the coaching staff has developed not enough of them.
The Ducks were very good on penalties until the second half when the offense brought drives to a halt with four penalties that put Herbert in long-yardage situations that were difficult to convert.
Cristobal should feel good that his lads did not give up in this game. It’s easy to let down when things don’t go your way. The blocked punt was a "never give up" moment and showed everybody that good football isn’t always about offense or defense. The Ducks have to get ready for a very dangerous Arizona State team that is better, I think, than Utah.
The home fans can make a difference, but the players need to think, “I’m going to be the guy who makes the big play,” because that’s an important element they lack right now. Just get Herbert in rhythm early in the fray, and the Ducks should do well, running, passing and playing hard-nosed defense.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.