Eugene, Ore. • August seems like a long time ago.
When the University of Utah was ranked No. 7 to start the season, and a heavy consensus pick to win the Pac-12, the potential of the College Football Playoff was bandied about more unironically than in a normal year.
That No. 7 ranking and any legitimate CFP chatter faded into the humid night air of Gainesville, Fla. on Sept. 3.
Winning the Pac-12, though? That one has endured throughout this fall. Through the loss at UCLA six weeks ago, through all the injuries and personnel issues. Through the epic win over USC, and through all the lopsided victories that have wrapped around it.
Now, that chatter has been drastically altered, fading into the frigid night air of Eugene, Oregon following a 20-17 loss to the Ducks at Autzen Stadium. A win here would have kept Utah in control of its path back to Vegas. Instead, this loss means it needs a win and a lot of help this weekend simply for the right to defend the Pac-12 championship it earned just shy of a year ago.
This loss wasn’t all that dissimilar from the one at The Swamp. Opportunities wasted, mistakes made, interceptions magnified, the end result threatening to torpedo what everyone thought these Utes could be back in August.
Indeed, that feels like a long time ago.
Cam Rising picked the wrong night
We will start with a simple fact: Saturday night was the worst game of Rising’s career, which is 24 games old, including 23 starts.
The win over USC on Oct. 15, in which Rising threw for a career-high 415 yards took a toll. He came out of that with a knee injury, which he has been nursing ever since, which caused him to miss the Washington State game on Oct. 27. He is clearly not operating at 100%. He won’t use it as an excuse, but it should be an obvious factor to anyone watching these games live or on TV.
Against Arizona and Stanford, Rising looked unsure and sped up at the start, only to settle and produce solid games. All of this took place against lesser competition, while the offensive line looked better than it had and the rushing attack, maligned by injuries and issues, started to come back around and take pressure off Rising.
On Saturday, with the level of competition shooting back up in a building where the home team rarely loses, Utah needed more out of Rising than what it got. You can put some of that on the knee, but normally, his decision-making is one of his greatest traits. If nothing else, making sound decisions is sometimes enough to pull Rising through.
Interception No. 1: First-and-10 from the 50, one play after Cole Bishop forced a fumble and Zemaiah Vaughn recovered it. Rising tries to force one into traffic to Dalton Kincaid over the middle, picked off by Bennett Williams. The ensuing Oregon drive goes for a touchdown.
Interception No. 2: Second-and-7 from the Utah 28 after the defense forced a three-and-out. Rising’s pass over the middle intended for Thomas Yassmin is tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by Noah Sewell, who was in the right place at the right time. It would be unfair to hammer Rising over this one. Great defensive play, it happens.
Interception No. 3: Late fourth quarter, Utah driving, first-and-10 at the Oregon 48. Rising, looking for Kincaid, again tries to go into heavy traffic, picked off again by Bennett Williams.
Two of the three interceptions were questionable decisions. There was also the fourth-and-2 from the Oregon 26 earlier in the fourth quarter in which the ball appeared to slip out of Rising’s hand, although he may have just short-armed it. Either way, the ball landed at Kincaid’s feet, turnover on downs with 6:54 left.
One other play that stands out: Late second quarter, fourth-and-3 from the Oregon 11. The pass to Devaughn Vele in the end zone falls incomplete. Replays showed Money Parks was wide open on a hook route, which would have been enough for a first down inside the 10. These are the things that get magnified in losses, especially high-profile losses like this one.
Rising said postgame that the knee was not an issue. Again, we’re all watching the same thing. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig called very few rollout passes, which Rising excels at, but require mobility, and I can think of only one designed keeper called, which is probably 5-7 fewer than when he is healthy.
One more point: Utah’s offensive line got mauled for too much of the night. A lot of what Utah wants to do with the pass game is predicated on the run game going well. It was not going well on Saturday, and it put Rising in a tough spot.
A slew of missed opportunities
There was a play early in this game that went awry, effectively ending what could have been a tone-setter for Utah.
Down 7-0, the Utes’ first drive of the night faced second-and-4 from the Oregon 13. Rising to Vele along the left sideline down to the 3, but holding was called on Solomon Enis, who has been a physical, capable blocker on the perimeter all season (FYI, the call was on Enis, but the official stats, for some reason, have it left tackle Braeden Daniels).
Instead of first-and-goal from the 3, it was second-and-11 from the 20. A pair of incomplete passes followed, one to Vele and another to Parks, before Jadon Redding pushed a 38-yard field goal attempt wide.
That’s just brutal. Oregon opened the game with a too-easy touchdown drive, but Utah answered with its own strong drive, only to come out of there with no points. Leaving points on the field at Autzen Stadium is not advisable. The Utes left at least three out there, and maybe nine depending on how you want to view the aforementioned Parks hook route that Rising missed.
Just a weird game. Utah controlled the clock, it never went three-and-out, it only had two penalties, it averaged 4.3 yards per carry, which is enough, and it held Oregon to 59 yards rushing. All of that in a vacuum says Utah wins this game. Conversely, it only entered the red zone twice in 11 drives, the defense couldn’t do much with Bo Nix (more on that below), nor could it do much with the two of the three turnovers they produced, and the offense only managed 10 points, which is out of character.
The entire night was an opportunity lost, with an abundance of missed chances spread across four quarters.
Much was made about the availability of Oregon’s quarterback throughout last week after he suffered an ankle injury vs. Washington.
Nix looked to be moving well during pregame warmups, and as expected in a game of this magnitude, he took the first snap, finishing 25-for-37 for 287 yards, a touchdown and a fourth-quarter interception by Clark Phillips III.
It was clear from the outset that offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham wanted to get the ball out of Nix’s hands quickly. A lot of short drops, or shotgun snaps, a lot of slants, a lot of quick decisions, and Utah couldn’t do much with it, especially in the first half. Nix was 6-for-7 for 64 yards on Oregon’s opening drive, four of those passes going to Kris Hutson for 43 yards, while Bucky Irving’s 10-yard touchdown run opened the scoring.
Overall, the Utes did a fine job against Nix and a normally high-octane Ducks offense. Of Nix’s 287 passing yards, 144 of them came on four throws, and Oregon’s athletic skill-position guys registered 152 yards after the catch.
That said, a key to this game was finding a way to get to Nix, and Utah never did, not from the defensive line, save for Simote Pepa’s sack, not when defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley dialed up some pressure.
Other things on my mind
• One brewing subplot in the back of my mind is, if this season does not end in a Rose Bowl, which Utes are going to opt out of whatever bowl game the team ends up in? I can promise you, this entire roster is not signing up to play in a lesser bowl.
• Nate Johnson played in his third game in as many weeks, and it was a waste. He lined up in the backfield and didn’t touch the ball. I think that lends credence to the notion that the staff is not worried about four games and preserving the redshirt, but that’s just an assumption.
• Dalton Kincaid was targeted 17 times. Devaughn Vele, Money Parks, Jaylen Dixon and Solomon Enis were targeted a combined 17 times. Lack of wide receiver usage or, in some cases, lack of those guys being able to get open, has been a thing since Florida. I can already sense we’re going to be writing about this topic come spring.
• Jaylen Dixon should be getting the ball in space as much as possible. Good things happen when he is involved, and he isn’t involved enough.