SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Justin Herbert, Troy Dye and the rest of the seniors, who were recruited to an elite program only to endure three years of coaching chaos, will leave their own championship legacy.
No. 13 Oregon, which has lived by the “Take the Pac!” mantra since Mario Cristobal was elevated to head coach, dominated No. 5 Utah during a 37-15 victory in the Pac-12 championship game on Friday night in front of a split crowd of 38,679 at Levi’s Stadium.
The orange and yellow confetti fell on the same rain-soaked field where the Marcus Mariota-led Ducks celebrated the program’s last conference title in 2014.
The Ducks (11-2) will not be heading to the College Football Playoff this time, but they will be making the program’s eighth appearance in the Rose Bowl.
The Utes (11-2), who were the Pac-12’s last hope for the four-team playoff, lost in the conference championship game for the second consecutive season.
CJ Verdell’s 70-yard touchdown scamper against the nation’s No. 1 rushing defense, which gave Oregon a 30-15 lead with 7:09 remaining, was the back-breaker.
“That was the game. That’s when I was smelling roses,” senior left guard Shane Lemieux said. “You could tell by the Utah defenders’ eyes. That’s the best part of football, man, when you physically beat someone. We beat them in a really cool way, we ran the ball.
“Looking into their eyes and knowing they quit was very special.”
After Dye intercepted Tyler Huntley to seal the win, Verdell followed up the longest play in the history of the Pac-12 title game with a 31-yard touchdown run.
The sophomore was the game’s most valuable player after rushing for 208 yards` and three touchdowns against a Utah defense that was allowing 56.3 yards rushing per game.
“The disappointing thing is we lost in the one area we've been undefeated this year: Line of scrimmage,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham lamented. “We didn't win the line of scrimmage for the first time all season, which is, like I say, disappointing. Surprising really.
“Credit Oregon. They were good up front. That offensive line is physical.”
Oregon’s defense was equally impressive, sacking Huntley six times and intercepting the senior twice, which was his season total coming in.
“I thought this was possible in January when I made my decision to come back,” Dye said. “I knew that we had the right type of people, the right coaching staff and the right type of mentality.”
Herbert, who passed for 193 yards and a touchdown, ended the game in the victory formation.
But not before the Utes made things interesting in the second half.
Utah’s two dynamic offensive stars, Huntley and senior running back Zack Moss, hooked up on a 24-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 20-7 with 10:52 remaining in the third quarter.
Oregon fans had some brief Alamo Bowl flashbacks as center Jake Hanson, who was back in the lineup after missing the Oregon State game due to injury, had a miscommunication with Herbert on a snap.
Herbert sprinted back and fell on the loose football on the 1-yard line for a loss of 20 yards. He took a forearm shiver from Bradlee Anae in the process.
Blake Maimone got the offense out the hole with a 57-yard punt, and cornerback Thomas Graham broke up a pass on fourth-and-to at the 50-yard line to give the Ducks the momentum back.
“College football is obviously a game of momentum and the entire game can just flip after one or two plays it seems like,” Hanson said. “Obviously in that third quarter we did a lot of things to screw ourselves. I snapped the ball when Justin was making an audible. You can’t do that. We had six false starts that game, too, which you can’t do.
“It was just about being resilient. Maimone is a great player. He’s not getting the love that he deserves all season. That punt was huge.”
After Cristobal called a timeout and then spiked his headset ahead of a critical third-and-9, Verdell moved the sticks with a violent 10-yard run.
True freshman placekicker Camden Lewis extended the lead with a 25-yard field goal, his third of the night.
“It’s been up and down for sure, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Lewis, who missed a chip shot against Auburn, hit the game-winner against Washington State and had been struggling down the stretch. “I’m happy with the way it went.”
Moss rumbled for a 33-yard run, and Graham was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to set up Huntley’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Samson Nacua with 1:13 left in the third quarter.
Huntley and Nacua hooked up on a 2-point conversion to get the Utes within one score at 23-15.
“They didn't quit. No quit in these guys,” said Whittingham, whose team suffered a 10-3 loss to Washington in the 2018 Pac-12 championship. “Congratulations to Oregon. Just have to come back here next year, keep coming back until we get it right.”
Oregon super freshman Kayvon Thibodeaux and linebacker Isaac Slate-Matautia sacked Huntley for an 8-yard loss and the Utes failed to convert a third-and-20.
Verdell broke their hearts moments later. He is the first player to rush for 200 yards against Utah in five years.
“Love the guy,” Lemieux said. “He’s a little guy but he runs hard and he scoots off like a little roadrunner.”
The Ducks had a commanding 20-0 lead at the intermission after an early blitzkrieg mapped out by coordinators Andy Avalos (defense) and Marcus Arroyo (offense).
Oregon’s defense did not allow the Utes to convert any of their third-down (0-for-6) or fourth-down (0-for-2) snaps in the first half.
Herbert passed for 178 yards, including 83 yards and a touchdown to Johnny Johnson before the break. The Ducks also rushed for 85 yards against a Utah defense that was allowing only 56.3 yards on the ground per game.
Moments after standout Utah safety Julian Blackmon left the game with an injury, Herbert threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Johnson to make the score 17-0 with 11:02 remaining in the second quarter.
Nose tackle Jordon Scott and defensive tackle Austin Faoliu pulled Huntley down on a fourth-and-2 to at the Oregon 31-yard line to terminate a promising Utah drive.
Johnson made a highlight-reel catch on the back of cornerback Josh Nurse to get the Ducks in the red zone again.
After the fifth false start by Oregon’s offensive line and a near-interception of Herbert in the end zone, Lewis booted a 30-yard field goal to extend the lead.
One snap after getting planted in the turf by Dye, Huntley missed an open receiver on third-and-15.
It was the first opponent the Ducks had kept off the scoreboard in the first half since Montana on Sept. 14.
Utah’s defense entered the game ranked third in the FBS in points allowed (11.3 per game) and yards allowed (241.6 yards per game).
The Ducks had 20 points and 263 yards at halftime, finishing with 37 points and 432 yards.
“I couldn't be more proud of a group of men,” Cristobal said. “I believe they outwork everybody. They are made of the right stuff. They've created a culture that is second to none. A night like tonight validates all their hard work.”
Avalos’ unit came up with a key stop, as safety Brady Breeze and Faoliu stuffed Moss behind the line to gain on a fourth-and-1 at the Oregon 33-yard line.
Arroyo dusted off the read-option section of the playbook, and Herbert had 9- and 13-yard runs to loosen up the Utes early. He then completed a 12-yard pass to Jaylon Redd to move the sticks on third-and-2.
Verdell capped the impressive nine-play, 67-yard march with a 3-yard touchdown to make the score 7-0.
Oregon caught a break on Utah’s second possession when a targeting call on Breeze was overturned by the officials after a replay review.
The Ducks were able to force an incompletion after the ensuing third-and-6 instead of being penalized 15 yards.
“You look at a defense that was just committed to being a dominant force tonight,” Cristobal said. “They did it in the run game, they did it in the pass game. They made a couple of plays as well, credit to them, because that's a really good football team.”
Hebert threw a gorgeous 50-yard completion to Juwan Johnson down to the Utah 2-yard line.
Oregon settled for a 23-yard field goal by Lewis after a false start by tight end Hunter Kampmoyer on third-and-goal at the 6 and a botched trick play in which left tackle Penei Sewell ran for a 1-yard gain after receiving a lateral from Herbert.
The Utes’ shaky start continued with a false start before the snap on a fourth-and-1 at the Oregon 38, followed by Thibodeaux blocking a punt.
Huntley threw his third interception of the season as Breeze, who led the team with nine tackles, picked the efficiency signal-caller off in the end zone.
It was supposed to be Utah’s year. Instead, it was Oregon’s night.
“I’m still trying to believe it because we were 4-8 and nobody in the country would have thought our class would be anything,” Lemieux said. “It turns out we might have the best offensive line in the country and won the Pac-12 and are going to the Rose Bowl.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.”
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @RGDuckFootball and email podcast mailbag questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.