Eugene, Ore. • Roads back to Las Vegas are just about closed for the University of Utah.
The 10th-ranked Utes, needing a win to control their destiny in getting back to the Pac-12 championship game, squandered a slew of opportunities in falling to 12th-ranked Oregon, 20-17, in front of a full-throated, sellout Autzen Stadium crowd of 57,009.
Utah (8-3, 6-2 Pac-12) can still get to the title game on Dec. 2 at Allegiant Stadium, but would need significant outside help.
A Pac-12 spokesperson confirmed to The Salt Lake Tribune late Saturday night that In addition to winning at Colorado on Saturday, the Utes would need Oregon State to beat Oregon, Washington to beat Washington State, and UCLA to beat Cal. USC secured a spot in the Pac-12 championship game earlier Saturday via a 48-45 win at UCLA.
“It was just two good football teams going at it, and in the final analysis, they made a couple of more plays than we did,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said.
Utah’s offense scratched and clawed for much of the night behind an uncharacteristically poor showing from Rising, who has been nursing a left knee injury for most of the last month. His last-gasp effort, a fourth-and-6 over the middle was just out of Solomon Enis’ reach. A completion there would have gotten Utah to around the 30-yard line and within Jadon Redding’s field goal range.
Instead, the ball turned over on downs with 1:57 left. Oregon picked up a first down, and Bo Nix took a knee to secure the win. Nix, the subject of much fanfare during the week thanks to his injured right ankle, finished 25-for-37 for 287 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
“It just wasn’t good enough,” said Rising, who finished 21-for-38 for 170 yards and three interceptions, marking the first three-interception game of his career. “We didn’t do what we needed to do to be successful, and kept shooting ourselves in the foot. I have to play better, personally, myself.”
A Clark Phillips III interception, his sixth of the year, gave Utah the ball back at its own 26-yard line with 5:50 to play. The Utes got to the Oregon 42, but Rising’s third interception, this one over the middle intended for Dalton Kincaid gave the ball back to the Ducks with 4:15 on the clock. Oregon’s offense, cold for much of the second half, couldn’t do anything with the interception before punting it back to Utah.
Kincaid had 11 catches for 99 yards on 17 targets, playing an expanded role after missing the Arizona game on Nov. 5, then playing in a limited capacity on Nov 12 against Stanford. Kincaid is one of several key Utes that have been dealing with injuries over the last month, which would have made a win on Saturday quite satisfying given the recent difficulties.
“We just go in, get treatment, practice, we’ll do some rehab, and just try to feel as good as we can for the game,” Kincaid said. “You get a 12-game season, you go down the stretch in November, and it’s hard to play football. You see it throughout the whole country. That’s just the goal, feel as good as you can for the game, and try to perform.”
On the first play of the fourth quarter, with the game tied at 17, Oregon faced fourth-and-5 from the Utah 42-yard line. Nix hit Troy Franklin over the middle for five yards and a first down after the spot of the ball was reviewed via replay.
The chains moved again on a third-down conversion, but the drive stalled at the 24 after a third-down pass from Nix to Kris Hutson went for no gain. A 41-yard Camden Lewis field goal gave Oregon a 20-17 lead with 11:17 left to play.
The Utes then picked up two third downs to march into Oregon territory. On fourth-and-2 at the Oregon 26, Rising rolled to his left, but as he attempted a short pass to Kincaid that likely would have gone for a first down, the ball appeared to slip out of his hand. The pass landed incomplete at Kincaid’s feet, giving the ball back to Oregon with 6:54 to play.
On the road, in a hostile building, where the home team had won 23 straight times across five seasons before last week, was not the time to make mistakes and turn the ball over.
Utah did both during the first half. A killer holding penalty inside the Oregon 5-yard line on Utah’s first drive, which ended with a missed field goal. An incomplete to the end zone on fourth-and-3 from the 11, when Rising had Money Parks wide open on a hook route for a first down.
The most-egregious mistake came early in the second quarter. After Nix completed a 27-yard pass to Dont’e Thornton on third-and-17, Utes cornerback Zemaiah Vaughn popped the ball loose before Cole Bishop recovered it at the 50.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Rising tried to jam a pass over the middle and into traffic to Kincaid, only to have the ball tipped into the air and intercepted by Ducks nickel back Bennett Williams
Oregon took that good fortune the other way, going 52 yards in eight plays and 3:34, capped by a four-yard touchdown pass from Nix to Franklin for a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.