Santa Clara, Calif. • Nothing that Utah’s Tyler Huntley did on fourth and 19 could have altered his team’s outcome Friday night vs. Oregon. All the Utes accomplished on their last offensive play of the Pac-12 championship game was subjecting their quarterback to another sack and finalizing their futility with a nice, round number.
With the yardage of five sacks subtracted, that’s how much of the Levi Stadium’s field Utah officially covered in the fourth quarter of a 37-15 loss to Oregon.
Oregon is a College Football Playoff-level team. The Ducks (11-2) cost themselves that opportunity in two ways by scheduling Auburn in August and by also losing to Arizona State in mid-November. Otherwise, Oregon might be in the CFP semifinals, sending Utah (11-2) to the Rose Bowl.
None of that stuff is happening now, and no endorsement of the Ducks is a fully satisfying explanation for what they did to the Utes. The Pac-12 needed a Utah win to give the conference a Playoff shot, with commissioner Larry Scott saying prior to kickoff that he couldn’t “overstate the [game’s] significance for the University of Utah in terms of the national awareness.”
That thought sounded better before than the game than afterward. Every team eventually is exposed, and it happened to the Utes sooner and more decisively than anyone expected — especially on the offensive and defensive lines. If the Ute fan base is feeling deceived by its team’s previous success, well, the Utes also fooled the CFP committee’s 13 members. They’re the ones who ranked Utah No. 5.
Amid all of the Utes’ problems Friday, they showed glimpses of what got them back to Levi’s Stadium. By dominating the Ducks in the third period, outscoring them 15-3 and outgaining them 131-37 in yardage, the Utes even gave themselves a chance to catch Oregon with another strong finish. “That’s what we’ve been really good at all year,” said running back Zack Moss, who posted 170 yards of rushing and receiving.
Instead of the Utes' continuing to assert themselves, Oregon pulled away via CJ Verdell's 70-yard touchdown run, part of his 208-yard game. That play came shortly after Utah coach Kyle Whittingham chose to punt on fourth and 4 at the Oregon 40 early in the fourth quarter, trailing 23-15 on a night when not much worked for him or his team.
“I would have bet the house that our defense would have been able to get a stop,” Whittingham said.
That figurative house is gone, just like Utah's hopes of a glamorous destination in December or January. Verdell ran to the end zone twice in the fourth quarter, taking the Ducks to the Rose Bowl. As for the Utes, who will learn their assignment Sunday afternoon, anywhere will be a letdown after the possibilities that awaited them this weekend.
Filling the New Year's Six at-large spot in the Cotton Bowl seems unlikely for the Utes because they'll fall so far in the CFP final rankings. The Alamo Bowl, Dec. 31 in San Antonio vs. a Big 12 opponent, is the Pac-12's top affiliation below the Rose Bowl. By conference rule, the Alamo Bowl is allowed to choose USC, because the Trojans finished within one game of Utah in the Pac-12 standings.
Utah's lowest possible landing spot is a return to the Holiday Bowl, Dec. 27 in San Diego. Regardless of where they play, the Utes promise to regroup. “We've just got to go out the best way we can at this point,” said senior safety Terrell Burgess.
They’ll have to rally a fan base that’s feeling betrayed at the moment. To win in late December, the Utes also must defy the trend that includes themselves in 2018, when Northwestern beat them 31-20. All eight losers of Pac-12 title games have lost their subsequent bowl games. Utah may be missing senior safety Julian Blackmon, who left the game with an injury, as Whittingham acknowledged and Blackmon seemed to confirm in a postgame tweet.
Nephi Sewell, activated only in late November after receiving NCAA clearance as transfer from Nevada, made four tackles as a replacement for Blackmon and R.J. Hubert, who also was hurt. Sewell’s brother Penei anchors Oregon’s offensive line. The Ducks allowed only one sack (credited to linebacker Devin Lloyd), leaving Bradlee Anae tied for Utah’s career record.
Hearing his players field questions about all that was lost Friday, Whittingham endorsed them by saying those missed opportunities had become possibly only “because of what we did all season long from start to finish, to make this an important game.”
Whittingham even looked ahead to next December, when the Pac-12 title game moves to Las Vegas, saying the Utes would “keep coming back 'til we get it right.”
That's probably expecting too much in 2020 from a team that will lose 10 draftable players. The Utes will be rebuild without Huntley, Moss, offensive tackle Darrin Paulo and eight defensive starters. The All-Pac-12 team and other awards will be announced Tuesday, reinforcing how Utah had a lot of talent for a team that couldn't deliver a conference championship in 2019.
Judging by the young players in the program, Utah someday may have an offensive line like Oregon’s current group. But maybe not by next year — and certainly not as of Friday, when the Utes got dominated up front.
Bowl game defeats for losers of Pac-12 championship games:
2011 • Illinois 20, UCLA 14 (Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl).
2012 • Baylor 49, UCLA 26 (Holiday Bowl).
2013 • Texas Tech 37, Arizona State 23 (Holiday Bowl).
2014 • Boise State 38, Arizona 30 (Fiesta Bowl).
2015 • Wisconsin 23, USC 21 (Holiday Bowl).
2016 • Oklahoma State 38, Colorado 8 (Alamo Bowl).
2017 • TCU 39, Stanford 37 (Alamo Bowl).
2018 • Northwestern 31, Utah 20 (Holiday Bowl)