SALT LAKE CITY — When Utah had the ball, a field goal seemed like the optimal outcome for both teams.
Oregon’s defensive strategy could be describe as bend-but-don’t-break. That was fine with the Utes, as kicker Matt Gay set a school record by going 6-for-6 on field goal attempts.
Of Utah’s red zone struggles, quarterback Jason Shelley said: “We wanted to get Matt Gay more field goals.”
The math worked out for the Utes, who prevailed 32-25 Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium. For Oregon, the problem wasn’t necessarily the field goals, but all the plays leading up to them.
“Points are points, man,” linebacker Troy Dye. “We can’t give up any points. We’ve got to keep them out of field goal range and we’ve got to do a better job.”
After repeated red-zone stops, Oregon’s defense finally wore down in the fourth quarter. The Utes marched 60 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with 6:48 remaining, then burned nearly 4 1/2 minutes before Gay’s sixth field goal with 15 seconds to play.
“They made the plays that they had to,” coach Mario Cristobal said. “They took the ball and went down the length of the field and scored. We had an opportunity to respond and came up a little bit short.”
Oregon’s defense seemed to catch a break with the Utes missing starting quarterback Tyler Huntley and starting running back Zack Moss, both sidelined by injuries. The Ducks had their hands full containing Shelley and backup running back Armand Shyne, who ran for 174 yards on 26 carries.
“Hats off to them,” Cristobal said. “When you lose your quarterback and your running back, that’s certainly significant.
“We know the injury story, now. Our left tackle is out, a linebacker is out, our starting tight end is out, our other starting linebacker is out. We’ve got a good chunk of injuries. It’s that time of year when you’ve got to buckle up and get going.”
Oregon’s injury situation didn’t improve as linebacker Sampson Niu, starting in place of Kaulana Apelu and Issac Slade-Matautia, exited with an injury of his own.
Dye wasn’t daunted by Oregon’s dwindling depth.
“There’s always going to be a next man up,” Dye said. “We’ve got enough depth. We’ve got enough young guys who understand the schemes and the plays.”
Oregon’s defense kept the Ducks in the game by producing a pair of goal-line stops in the first half. The Utes had first-and-goal at the 1-yard line in the second quarter, but a bad snap pushed them back 12 yards and forced them to settle for a 21-yard field goal from Gay.
Gay also connected from 20 yards after Oregon stopped Shyne three times inside the 5-yard line.
“We want to be aggressive when the odds are in our favor,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “There was not an instance tonight where I wished we went for it on fourth down.
“We could not get much movement on them inside the 5-yard line. They have some strong kids.”
After bending for so much of the game, Oregon’s defense finally broke in the fourth quarter.
“I thought we had the momentum,” cornerback Thomas Graham said. “As a defense I thought we stepped up more in the second half, but we let it slip away.”