Duck fans can be forgiven if they had a little feeling of deja vu during Oregon’s game with Utah in Autzen Stadium on Saturday. Oregon committed a number of unforced errors and Offensive Coordinator Kenny Dillingham again called a puzzling game, but the Ducks were able to shake off a lower leg injury to Quarterback Bo Nix and defeat the Utah Utes 20 - 17.
Despite having his normal extreme mobility curtailed by what appears to be an ankle sprain or strain, Nix gutted it out. Nix was sacked only once but threw a number of passes that were not his usual crisp, on-the-money throws. Nix finished 25/37 for 287 yards and a touchdown with one interception which came late in the game with Oregon driving for what could have been a touchdown to ice the game. Oregon’s defense had perhaps its best game in a month finally getting some pressure on an opposing quarterback. The Ducks could not sack Utah Quarterback Cameron Rising but hurried quite a few passes and intercepted Rising 3 times. The Ducks defense had 6 tackles for loss and 6 pass breakups on the night. As the offense continued to waste chances to close out the Utes, the defense stepped up time and again and shut out Utah over the last 17:39.
The Ducks got off to a good start, taking the opening kickoff and marching 80 yards in 11 plays to take a 7 - 0 lead. Kris Hutson was a frequent target for Nix on this drive catching 3 passes. Bucky Irving scored on a 10-yard run to the left side. Utah’s first possession ended in a missed 38-yard field goal. The Utes had little trouble moving the ball to the Oregon 13 where a holding penalty moved them back to the 20 and Oregon forced 2 incomplete passes.
Oregon went 3 and out on 3 unsuccessful pass plays. Oregon punted and Utah fielded the ball at its 37, but an inexplicable interference penalty on Oregon gave the Utes 15 unearned yards to the Oregon 48. The short field was little help, after some good defense by Oregon, particularly a tackle-for-loss by Casey Rogers on 3rd and 6 from the Oregon 24 forced the Utes to settle for a 45-yard field goal to close the score to Oregon 7 - Utah 3.
Oregon began an unproductive possession in the last minute of the first quarter and Dont’e Thornton, Jr fumbled a catch after getting a 1st down on 3rd and 17. Utah obligingly gave the ball right back to Oregon on an interception by Bennett Williams.
The Ducks took over on their own 48-yard line and marched 52 yards in 8 plays, with a Nix hop-pass to Troy Franklin from the Utah 4 accounting for the score and putting Oregon up 14 - 3.
Oregon again gave up a lot of territory on the ensuing Utah possession, including a very interesting targeting penalty and ejection of Jamal Hill (Hill had to sit out the remainder of the game). Utah got as far as the Oregon 8, but another stuffed run by Rogers and a 4th-down pass out of the back of the end zone gave the ball back to the Ducks. Oregon had 2:29 left to make something happen and the Ducks got all the way to Utah 11 where, with 22 seconds left in the half and facing a 4th and 1, Oregon chose to kick the field goal and go into the locker room leading 17 - 3.
For the half, Nix was 16/21 for 189 yards and a touchdown. Noah Whittington had 35 yards and Irving 21. Thornton, Jr. caught 3 balls for 101 yards and Hutson 7 for 50. Irving also had 2 receptions for 20 yards.
Oregon kicked off to start the second half, and the defense again stepped up to stop the Utes. Utah ran only 5 plays which included a pass breakup by Christian Gonzalez and pressure from Brandon Dorlus on the ensuing 3rd down that forced an incompletion. Oregon’s Coaching Staff made another questionable decision by sending backup Quarterback Ty Thompson in on first down after the Utah punt. In what looked like a replay of a Thompson play from a previous game, the Ducks fumbled the ball and Utah got an unearned scoop and score to cut Oregon’s lead to 17 - 10. Oregon has really been hurt the last 2 games by these cutesy playcalls which serve only to give opponents chances to win games they shouldn’t. With Oregon State coming up next week, hopefully we’ve seen the last of this kind of offensive trickery. It’s one thing to run these plays against Colorado - quite another against higher quality competition.
Oregon got the ball back on the kickoff, but couldn’t do anything with it, picking up 2 yards on 3 downs. After Oregon punted, the Duck defense again took the ball away on an interception by Noah Sewell of a tipped Rising pass. Oregon took over on the Utah 35-yard line but again couldn’t do anything with the ball, losing six yards on 3 plays and punting from the Utes 41.
Utah tied the game on its next possession, by far its most effective drive of the night. The Utes went 86 yards on 14 plays. Utah did a ton of damage on the ground during this drive, including Utah running backs pushing or dragging 2 or 3 Oregon defenders over the line-to-gain. A Ute jet sweep featuring an untouched running back from the Oregon 18 knotted the game - Oregon 17 - Utah 17.
Oregon got the ball back on its 25 after the touchback with 2:39 left in the third quarter and moved the ball to the Utah 41 before the quarter expired. The Ducks overcame some more questionable playcalling, including a pass on 2nd and 6 early in the drive as well as a delay of game penalty. Irving had a tremendous catch-and-run on a 3rd and 11 for a first down.
Oregon continued to move the ball as the quarter dawned, with Nix hitting Franklin on a 4th and 4 on the quarter’s first play for a first down. The drive stalled at the Utah 24, however, as Oregon ran 3 plays that gained a total of 1 yard. But Camden Lewis came on to hit the 41-yard field goal and Oregon had inched back into the lead 20 - 17 with 11:17 left in the game.
Over the years, Ducks fans have built up their ability to hold their breath for long periods and the remainder of this game put that skill to the test. Oregon’s defense stopped the next Utah drive on 4th and 2 at the Oregon 26 as the intended receiver fell down (and to be fair, he was short of the line-to-gain anyway). Oregon looked like it would put the game away on its next possession after a long Nix pass to Thornton which he just snagged with his fingertips at the Utah 29. But Nix then threw an interception that would have been a Pick-6 but for a saving tackle. Why Oregon was throwing it in that game situation is a question one might ask. Oregon was fortunate again, however, as Utah ran only 4 plays before Williams grabbed his second interception of the game on the Utah 48 with 4:15 left.
Oregon’s Coaches again put the Ducks victory in jeopardy with a “trick” play wherein Nix went in motion to the left and the ball was direct-snapped to a running back. The play didn’t fool the Utah defense and led to lost yardage. Oregon couldn’t convert on 3rd and 12 and Utah fielded the punt on its 23. Oregon’s defense again stepped up, holding Utah to only 6 plays and another failed 4th-down conversion attempt at midfield. Oregon took over with 1:57 to play, and after converting a 3rd and 1 from the Utah 41 on the only designed run play for Nix the entire night, Utah was out of timeouts and the Ducks ran out the clock for the 20 - 17 win.
For the game, Whittington had 50 yards rushing and Irving 20. The Ducks had only 59 yards on the ground, the lowest at home in quite a while. Thornton, Jr. had a great game, with 151 yards and Hutson added 56. Irving added 33 yards catching the ball and Franklin caught 4 balls, including Nix’s lone touchdown pass. On the defense, Sewell had 2 tackles-for-loss and Rogers had 1.5. Williams had 2 interceptions and Sewell one.
The good news is that Nix did not seem to suffer any additional injury to his lower leg. As the Ducks face their in-state rivalry game against a pretty decent Oregon State defense next week, having Nix as close to 100 percent as possible could be a key to the game. Oregon did what it had to do against Utah, if not in the most beautiful, convincing way possible and the Ducks are now set up to appear in the Pac-12 Championship Game against USC next month with a win against the Beavers.