Oregon helped make all of this possible for Utah. If not for the Ducks’ victory over USC in early November, the Utes’ own remarkable season wouldn’t have taken them into another Pac-12 football championship game.
Just to remind the No. 5 Utes (11-1) of the favor that gave them another Pac-12 South title, No. 13 Oregon (10-2) will appear as their opponent Friday night at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., the last checkpoint in Utah’s path to a College Football Playoff semifinal berth.
All the Utes need is an LSU win over Georgia and … stop right there. Nothing that happens in other conference championship games Saturday will matter to Utah, unless the Utes beat Oregon for the Pac-12 title.
The legacy of the most talented team in Ute history, with 10 players likely to be drafted into the NFL in April, will be determined on a rainy, windy night in the Bay Area. Utah’s seniors all tell the same story, how a 10-3 loss to Washington in last year’s title game motivated them to come back and do more. As safety Julian Blackmon said, “This is a chance to rewrite history for the Utes.”
Or merely repeat it. Imagine the letdown of another loss at Levi’s Stadium, possibly relegating the Utes to the Alamo Bowl — far below the prestige level of the Playoff semifinals or the Rose Bowl, the traditional destination of the Pac-12 champion. That makes Friday’s game monumental to Utah’s program, regardless of what unfolds elsewhere this weekend.
Pressure? Absolutely. Yet defensive end Bradlee Anae said that compared with last year, “I notice the whole team is not as tense, leading up to this game. Everybody's loose, everybody's flying around. You can tell it's a bunch of veteran guys who have been there.”
They were driven to get back to Santa Clara, in the last Pac-12 championship game staged in the San Francisco 49ers’ stadium before the event moves to Las Vegas in 2020.
Recalling the feeling of walking off that field last year, junior receiver Samson Nacua said, “I remember just being hurt. I just thought to myself, 'We'll be back.' And the whole team worked their asses off and we're back here again. We're just ready to get the job done.”
Utah's defense hardly could have done more against Washington, allowing only a field goal. The Utes lost when the Huskies' Byron Murphy returned an interception 66 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter of a tie game, after the ball bounced off the hands and leg of former Ute receiver Siaosi Mariner, now playing for Utah State.
“Everything about that game … it lingers. You feel it,” said Ute receivers coach Guy Holliday. “It lasted a whole year for every one of us. You only get so many chances to win a championship.”
Thanks to their eight-game winning streak, the Utes are favored over Oregon, Yet the Ducks are the same team that was ranked ahead of Utah in late November and also was positioned to make the Playoff, until a 31-28 loss at Arizona State derailed them. With a healthy offensive line protecting quarterback Justin Herbert and a much-improved defense, this version of Oregon is better than the Ducks who lost 32-25 at Utah in November 2018.
The Utes also have upgraded since then. They beat Oregon that day without injured quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss, an achievement that seems more stunning a year later, considering what those players have meant to Utah.
Not since Sept. 29, 2018, at Washington State has Utah lost a game with them healthy. Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, the CFP committee chairman, repeatedly has pointed out that Utah's only loss (at USC in September) this season came after Moss exited early in the second quarter with a shoulder injury.
Moss, then, becomes a variable in Utah's last chance to impress the committee. If he has a big game Friday, it will reinforce how his absence explained what happened in Los Angeles, where goal-line failures hurt the Utes. Utah then regrouped and ransacked all of its other Pac-12 opponents, except Washington.
The Utes’ 33-28 win in Seattle required a fourth-quarter comeback, with the defense asserting itself and the offense coming through with consecutive touchdown drives of 80-plus yards. The Utes showed poise and toughness that day. They’ll need those traits against the Ducks, who similarly rallied to Washington, two weeks before Utah did.
UTAH VS. OREGON
At Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, Calif.
Kickoff: 6 p.m. MST
TV: Ch. 4
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: Utah 11-1 (8-1 Pac-12); Oregon 10-2 (8-1).
Series history: Oregon leads, 22-10.
Last meeting: Utah 32, Oregon 25 (2018).
About the Utes: Utah’s eight-game winning streak matches the program’s longest in-season run since an 8-0 start in 2010, the Utes’ last season in the Mountain West. … As the visiting team, the Utes will wear the white uniforms they sported in a 62-20 win at Oregon in 2015. ... The Utes have won 14 of their last 16 regular-season conference games, starting with an October 2018 victory at Stanford. … The Pac-12 South champion has lost seven of the eight conference title games. … Utah is the South first’s repeat winner since UCLA in 2011-12, with the Bruins’ first title due to USC’s ineligibility. ... Bradlee Anae is among five finalists for the Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year Award, presented next week.
About the Ducks: Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert was named the Pac-12 Football Scholar-Athlete of the Year; Utah’s nominee was senior safety Terrell Burgess. ... Oregon is 2-0 in Pac-12 championship games, beating UCLA 49-31 at home in 2011 and routing Arizona 51-14 at Levi’s Stadium in 2014. … Herbert has thrown 31 touchdown passes and five interceptions. … The Ducks are averaging 35.8 points to Utah’s 35.6. … Coach Mario Cristobal has a 19-7 record, starting with a loss to Boise State in the 2017 Las Vegas Bowl after he replaced Willie Taggart.