Utah football flunks its playoff audition, falls to Oregon 37-15 in Pac-12 Championship Game

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kyle Whittingham leads his team onto the field as Utah faces Oregon in the Pac-12 football championship game in Santa Clara, Calif., on Friday Dec. 6, 2019.

Santa Clara, Calif. • Oklahoma vs. Baylor is irrelevant and LSU vs. Georgia is meaningless to Utah, all because the Utes' game vs. Oregon turned into an abrupt end of their big-time ambitions.

No. 5 Utah's hopes of a College Football Playoff berth, with the fabled Rose Bowl as a fallback, crumbled Friday night in a 37-15 loss to Oregon in the Utes' return to the Pac-12 championship game at Levi's Stadium.

Utah fans planned to spend Saturday agonizing about the results of other conference title games that might have propelled their team to the Playoff semifinals. The Utes (11-2) skipped the important detail of doing their own part against No. 13 Oregon (11-2). The Ducks stormed to a 20-0 halftime lead and stayed in front, weathering Utah's mild comeback on their way to the Rose Bowl.

The Ducks “got tired of hearing we weren’t the more physical team,” said Oregon coach Mario Cristobal.

Five times in the first half, the Utes drove inside the Oregon 40-yard line. All five times, they were stopped short of the 30, tidily summarizing this game.

“We did not win the line of scrimmage, for the first time all season, which was disappointing and surprising, really,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said.

“We just never got rolling,” said Ute running back Zack Moss, who got the bulk of his 113 rushing yards on two long plays.


• Utah loses in the Pac-12 football championship game for the second straight year, 37-15 to Oregon.

• The Pac-12 North’s contestant wins the title game for the eighth time in nine years.

• Utah likely will settle for an Alamo Bowl berth, to be announced Sunday afternoon.

Label it a case of business, unfinished. Still. And who knows when the Utes ever will have another opportunity like this. They're left to lament seven drives to midfield or beyond that they failed to convert into points. And their proud defense allowed 208 rushing yards and three touchdowns to Oregon's CJ Verdell, the game's MVP whose 70-yarder midway through the fourth quarter was the first of two daggers for the Ducks (11-2).

Whittingham praised his seniors for having done everything that made this game so important to Utah's program, but those accomplishments only made the letdown more precipitous.

The Utes had battled back to within 23-15 after three quarters, via quarterback Tyler Huntley's two touchdown passes to Moss and Samson Nacua. Utah drove into Oregon territory again, but Huntley was sacked and the Utes ended up punting.

Even with the Utes down to their third-string free safety (the recently activated Nephi Sewell) after injuries to Julian Blackmon and R.J. Hubert, the defense had asserted itself in the second half. But then Verdell broke free on a third-and-1 play, and the Utes were done.

Utah's repeat visit to Levi's Stadium represented a redemption opportunity, motivating the team's key seniors to stay in school and pursue a championship. Instead, a team with 10 players who may be drafted by the NFL in April was overwhelmed by the Ducks.

Some hope of a Cotton Bowl berth remains, although Utah will likely fall too far in the CFP final rankings Sunday to earn a New Year’s Six bid. The Utes probably will be relegated to the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio against a Big 12 opponent on Dec. 31. And who knows if all of Utah’s draft-eligible players will be able or willing to participate. Blackmon’s injury may be significant, Whittingham said.

Moss, though, sounded determined to keep playing. “This one definitely hurts,” Moss said, “but we’ve got another game, so we shift our focus there."

Wherever that game is, it’s not one of the big destinations they wanted.

Starting with that 10-3 loss to Washington last year, the Utes had gone six quarters without scoring a touchdown in the home of the San Francisco 49ers. Utah showed some life in the third quarter, inspiring hope of another rally from 20-0 down, as happened last season against BYU.

Trailing 23-15, the Utes were 46 yards away from potentially tying the game, almost like the case against Washington last year. But they couldn't get any closer, and then it got worse. Verdell's two fourth-quarter touchdowns came before and after the Ducks' second interception of Huntley, who later was sacked for a sixth time.

That’s not the ending the Utes wanted in another title-game appearance. But it’s the ending they got.