Eugene, Ore. • The best play of Utah’s worst month in Pac-12 history came when offensive tackle Darrin Paulo caught a tipped pass in the end zone while lying on his back.
Not even an accidental touchdown could salvage the Utes’ October, ending with Saturday’s 41-20 loss to Oregon in the wonderfully frenzied atmosphere of Autzen Stadium. A team that came into the month with a No. 20 ranking lost all four games, evoking variations of the word “embarrassing” from players in the postgame interview tent and leaving Utah coach Kyle Whittingham merely targeting bowl eligibility.
“Miserable,” Whittingham said, summarizing the month.
The Utes surrendered 347 rushing yards, apparently forgetting that the rules allow ball-carriers to run around the ends, and kept failing to finish drives. A fourth straight defeat left them searching even more for answers, with defensive end Kyle Fitts saying, “Honestly, I’m embarrassed” and quarterback Tyler Huntley agreeing with an adjective that forced him to add, “Excuse my language,” as a school publicist quickly halted the players’ session.
Less crudely, but almost as tersely, Whittingham suggested the season is “at a little bit of a crossroads.”
His team may have passed that point, actually. The Utes (4-4, 1-4) are last in the Pac-12 South, and maybe this downturn is explainable by the fact these guys never really were that good. They beat North Dakota, BYU and San Jose State in nonconference play, then launched the Pac-12 schedule by outlasting Arizona before Khalil Tate became the Wildcats’ starting quarterback.
So now they’re just hoping for two wins in the closing stretch of games vs. UCLA, Washington State, Washington and Colorado to qualify for a bowl bid, something that hardly seemed like an achievement as of a month ago. That was before Stanford, USC, Arizona State and Oregon conspired to deliver the first winless month in Utah’s seven seasons of Pac-12 membership.
“We’re not going to let this spiral down,” Fitts said, although that’s already happening.
Whittingham cited an emotional loss at USC, where the Utes could have won with a 2-point conversion, as having a lasting effect. “It just deflates you,” he said. But that’s not a fully satisfying answer for why this season has crumbled, or what happened Saturday against the Ducks, who are known as a lousy second-half team.
Crazy stuff always occurs in Utah-Oregon games, such as Utah’s Kaelin Clay’s dropping the ball short of the end zone in 2014, the Utes exploding for 62 points in Eugene the next year and current Ute receiver Darren Carrington II catching the winning touchdown pass for Oregon with two seconds left in Salt Lake City last November. Carrington caught nine passes for 130 yards in his return as a graduate transfer who was dismissed from the Ducks’ program in July. But the only TD involving him Saturday came when Ugochokwu Amadi stripped him after a catch and returned the fumble 47 yards for a second-quarter touchdown, making it 17-3.
The Utes answered with Paulo’s rare reception on a fourth-down play from the 1-yard line to start the third quarter, pulling them within 17-13. “Yeah, that’s how it works,” said offensive coordinator Troy Taylor, managing to smile.
The Ducks just kept running and running, though, operating with a fill-in quarterback who’s not much of a passing threat. “Rushing yards are far more damaging than throw yards,” Whittingham said. “Statistically, that’s a fact.”
And the numbers are not adding up favorably for the Utes, on either side of the ball. In a nine-quarter stretch, their only touchdowns came via the last drive at USC, a meaningless score vs. ASU and Paulo’s lucky catch. They had a remote chance to rally in the fourth quarter, down 34-20, but Huntley was pressured and threw incomplete on fourth down, ending their hopes and making Carrington’s homecoming stats hollow.
The red pole Carrington ran into, leading to his DUI arrest at the McDonald’s drive-thru across the Willamette River from the stadium, remains intact. The same cannot be said for Utah’s season, as of late October.