Utah football: Utes run out of luck, big plays
Eugene, Ore. » For the first time in more than a season, the Utah Utes walked off a football field Saturday with their heads down and shoulders drooping from the weight of a loss.
The 16-game winning streak started way back at the Poinsettia Bowl in 2007, then saw the Utes through a magical 2008 season. The streak finally ended at the hands of the Oregon Ducks, who held on to beat the No. 18 Utes 31-24 here in Autzen Stadium.
"It's a foreign feeling," said offensive lineman Zane Beadles as he glanced up at the scoreboard, as if he had to confirm again the Utes really did lose. "It's not a good feeling. The reason why you play the game of football is to win, and it's not fun unless you win."
The Utes knew the streak had to end at some point, but that doesn't mean they didn't want it to keep going, nor did they ever stop believing it could continue for just one more game.
"We all wish this could have gone on for infinity," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham acknowledged.
Problem was the Utes ran out of the big plays, the karma, the mojo and whatever else that has gone in their favor the last 16 games.
Also missing was an offense that could move the ball effectively or win the game at the end like the Utes did on three occasions in 2008. The Utes went seven straight possessions in the first half without a first down. Quarterback Terrance Cain's day was, at best, rough even before he was intercepted in the closing minutes of the game. He finished completing 20 of 41 passes for 178 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions.
The defense had its issues too, giving up 217 yards rushing. Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was just 4 of 16 for 95 yards, but how much of his lack of productivity was his fault, as opposed to anything good Utah's defense did, could certainly be debated.
"We are going through some growing pains right now as a team, that was evident," Whittingham said.
All they were left with when the final seconds ticked off was a kind of victory they don't like, a morale-boosting one, as Utah played an ugly first half but somehow almost rallied to steal the game in the second half.
Outclassed, outmanned and outsmarted in the first half, the Utes were seemingly on the verge of suffering one of their worst road losses in Whittingham's era when the Ducks made it a 28-10 game with a 4-yard touchdown run by Masoli with 8:34 remaining in the third quarter.
But then things started to swing in Utah's favor, thanks to a little help from the Ducks.
First, the Utes put together their only real true drive of the game when they went 71 yards in 10 plays and scored on a 22-yard pass play from Cain to Brooks.
On the ensuing drive by Oregon, Masoli fumbled and the ball was recovered by Utah safety Robert Johnson, who returned it 28 yards to make it a 28-24 game.
Johnson provided another big play in the fourth quarter when he intercepted Masoli on third-and-goal from Utah's 9-yard line, but the Utes couldn't escape disaster again when Cain was intercepted on Utah's 38-yard line.
That turnover led to an Oregon field goal with 3:30 remaining. The Utes drove down to Oregon's 38-yard line, but the potential for a possible comeback ended when Cain was intercepted again, this time on a pass intended for Jereme Brooks.
Oregon defender John Boyett crossed in front of Brooks, caught the ball and effectively ended Utah's winning streak.
"I'm proud of this football team for hanging in there and to have a chance to win at the end," Whittingham said. "They didn't, but the guts and toughness they demonstrated to hang in there and continue to fight -- I was very proud of them."
That tenacity gave the Utes something to hold onto, but it doesn't deny the fact the Utes have a lot to work on before Louisville visits next week.
The Utes left the field with their heads hanging, now for the first time in more than a season they have to learn how to pick them up again.
"It was disappointing," linebacker Stevenson Sylvester said. "We gave up some things we normally don't give up and on defense we needed to make more turnovers but we have to put it behind you. Tiger Woods misses a putt or something and he takes three seconds and blows it off. that is what we have to do."
In short » Utah's 16-game winning streak, the longest in the nation, comes to a miserable end Saturday in a loss to Oregon.
Key moment » After Utah fails to convert on fourth-and-12, Oregon takes over on its 39-yard line and scores a touchdown three plays later to make it a 21-7 game.
Key stat » Utah goes seven possessions in a row in the first half without a first down.