Gordon Monson: Utah’s game of the year descended into a game to be forgotten

The Utes did what they could to beat themselves in a defeat at Autzen.

(Andy Nelson | AP) Utah running back Ja'Quinden Jackson is tackled by Oregon defensive back Trikweze Bridges (11) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Eugene, Ore.

The game of the year, appropriately enough, turned into … well, the game of the year.

Utah-Oregon, Oregon-Utah … err, oops … make that USC-UCLA, UCLA-USC. Some 733 miles to the south in Pasadena, now that was the game of the year, a proper 48-45 thriller.

Not this. Not what happened between the Utes and the Ducks in Eugene on Saturday night. This was no thriller.

What it was was … something else, it was a knuckle-buster, a kneecap-cracker, a heartbreaker. Yeah, it was a game, it was a game loaded with ebbs and flows, a game of toughness and defense, inconsistencies and mistakes, a close, competitive game, but it was not the game, not one Utah would want to remember.

No. It was football dressed out in disappointment, a 20-17 loss to forget.

Much of the game was a mess, but a series of opportunities for the Utes as the minutes wound down at Autzen Stadium went unrealized, unfulfilled, leaving them short of a likely shot at qualifying for the Pac-12 championship game and thereafter a return to the Rose Bowl.

And that’s what Utah football had been aiming at for what seemed like forever. Even, especially, after the Utes suffered a difficult defeat to UCLA in the very venue they so badly wanted to return to on Jan. 2, they dialed in on making that real, winning game after game after game after game. Every week was a game they had to win to keep that hope alive. And win they did, four straight times — until this cold, cruel night in Oregon, when their dreams ran headlong into a brick wall.

“We weren’t quite in sync on offense tonight and never really got in much of a rhythm,” said Kyle Whittingham. “… I thought for sure that we could win the game on those last two drives. It didn’t happen.”

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen — or not happen.

Whittingham had emphasized the point as the Utes overcame adversity in September and early October to claim success in the aftermath, mirroring what they accomplished last season following initial adversity, teeing up another great comeback, a team using character and resolve to gain its rewards, rewards that could still be realized, but not without a whole lot of outside help and outside luck. Probability was dowsed by way of …

A punch to the throat.

A punch thrown by a dinged quarterback that some thought wouldn’t be able to play against the Utes. Suit up Bo Nix did, despite a bum wheel made that way in Oregon’s loss to Washington last week.

Normally a mobile QB who accentuates his passing talents with his legs, Nix played much like a statue against the Utes, staying in the pocket, firing off quick passes, doing all he could to avoid getting hit.

It worked just enough to preserve victory for the Ducks. Nix completed 25 of 37 passes for 287 yards and a touchdown. He saved his only purposeful run of the night to pick up a huge first down on third-and-1, a first down that clinched the win for the Ducks as they were clinging to their thin lead with 1:36 remaining.

It was no doubt a gutsy performance by the senior, one that inspired his teammates and doomed the Utes. After time ran off the clock, in the celebration, Nix was asked by a TV reporter what enabled him to do what he did.

His answer: “It was God. He continued to heal my ankle. … I glorify him in all I do.”

If that is true, no wonder the Utes lost. You can’t beat God.

But you can beat yourselves.

And in that regard, the Utes did what they could.

Cam Rising, as steady a performer at any position as Utah has had in years, was not steady here. He missed open receivers. On one possession, he overthrew Devaughn Vele in the end zone, all while he had Money Parks open for a first down inside the Oregon 10-yard line. That’s how it went. Rising threw three picks. On a key fourth-down play late in the game, with Dalton Kincaid awaiting a short delivery to gain a critical first down, Rising threw the ball into the turf, killing the chance.

“It just wasn’t good enough,” he said.

Although Rising has struggled at times since returning from an injury a few weeks ago, it was un-Rising-like to commit such an error. He is one of the best quarterbacks Utah has ever had, and in that moment, and in others, too, the Utes needed him to be that guy. But he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — be. Not this time.

As Nix lifted his team just enough — apparently, with the advantage of the Almighty’s heavenly help — Rising could conjure no such strength, divine or otherwise. He passed for just 170 yards.

(Let’s be all clear here, God couldn’t care less whether Bo Nix’s ankle held up enough for him to beat the Utes. God has more important business to attend to than pulling strings or ligaments inside the outcome of a college football game, even if a quarterback claims to glorify God in all he does. Can we agree on that, at least?)

Either way, Nix led his offense down the field for a score on the Ducks’ first drive. The Utes missed a field goal, then made one before Oregon got another TD, going up 14-3. Two more field goals gave the Ducks their 20 points.

Mixed in was a goofy play in the shadow of Oregon’s own goalposts, a trick flip from backup quarterback Ty Thompson that turned into a fumble and a touchdown for Utah.

That was not enough to alter the game’s outcome. On attack, the Utes couldn’t gather themselves in any coordinated manner to get more than their point total of 17, seven of which, as mentioned, came from the defense. Ten points from the offense was never going to be sufficient to win this game.

All told, Utah gained 326 yards. The Ducks only managed 20 more, in total.

That meager output was surprising against an Oregon defense that is hardly the best in the Pac-12. That top position is held by Utah, but again and again, the Utes couldn’t complete drives.

A bigger surprise throughout was that the Ducks were the more physical team. Most opponents cannot make that claim against Utah, but it was happening here. Just when the Utes gained some brutish momentum in the second half, their efforts fell apart.

Nix did give credit to his defense, saying that it “played lights out,” adding that it “essentially won it for us.”

The last thing the quarterback said was the truest observation of all.

“We were tough,” he said. “We played tough.”


And if the Ducks win next week, they’ll be rewarded for it, accepting and achieving their own dreams, taking what Utah had wanted for itself, playing USC in the Pac-12 championship game, with the Rose Bowl potentially awaiting them after that.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.