With the Willamette Valley and Salt Lake City not being a convenient trip by rail, the first football game between Oregon and Utah did not occur until the start of a 2 for 1 series in 1933, a 26-7 win for the Webfoots in Eugene. Oregon swept this first 3 game series, and it would not be until 1954 the teams would meet again and Utah would record their first victory, 7-6 in Eugene. Afterwards the two schools met as regular, if infrequent, non-conference opponents. In 2013 the Utes* entered the Ducks regular rotation of Pac-12 South division opponents following the school’s move from the Mountain West Conference in 2011. Entering this season the Ducks hold a decisive 24-12-0 advantage in the series.
* The history of Utah’s sports pageantry is a controversial one. Since 1996 active cooperation between the University of Utah and the tribal council of the Ute nation has been, with few exceptions, a mutually satisfactory arrangement.
Even before joining the Pac-12, there were memorable moments between the Ducks and the Utes during the modern era. Oregon head coach Rich Brooks had two games against Utah and his teams lost both: first in SLC in 1991 and again at Autzen Stadium in 1994. The 1994 game is especially notable as the only home game the eventual Pac-10 champions dropped that season. Hard introspection by the coaching staff after consecutive disappointing performances against WAC opponents Hawaii and Utah has been credited with rallying the team for one of the most satisfying seasons in Oregon football history afterwards.
Brooks’ successor Mike Bellotti apparently learned never to take the Utes lightly and his teams beat them in SLC in 1995, then at Autzen in 1997 and 2001. The 2001 Oregon team had conference, and even national, championship aspirations and was heavily favored against the Utes of the Mountain West. The contest was closer than many predicted with Utah controlling time of possession. But the Ducks kept them at arms length none the less and won 24-10.
Oregon made a return visit to Rice-Eccles Stadium on October 3, 2003. The Ducks had gotten off to a 4-0 start to the season, including a memorable victory at home against then #3 ranked Michigan that landed them on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The team had quickly succumbed to the infamous “SI Cover Curse” and got blown out the following week at home against Washington State. The all time melt down included 9 turnovers and 2 punts blocked. Oregon played a much cleaner game in SLC, but struggled to get any momentum on offense and were defeated by Urban Meyer’s Utes 17-13.
Though it wouldn’t be apparent for several years, this otherwise innocuous defeat during a bad stretch of the season would turn out to be one of the most influential games of Bellotti’s tenure. During game prep, Bellotti had been intrigued by the difficulties Meyer’s “spread-option” offense presented to the Duck’s defense and was eager to borrow from it for Oregon’s own offense. His offensive staff, especially then coordinator Andy Ludwig, were resistant to supplementing their system with Meyer’s ideas and the team kept Ludwig’s pro-style scheme for the rest of 2003 and 2004. Following a 5-6 2004 season that saw Oregon miss a bowl game for the first year since 1996, Ludwig “left” for Utah under Meyer’s successor Kyle Whittingham. Bellotti hired Gary Crowton, who brought a full revamp to the Ducks offense using a pass heavy spread that also utilized zone-read runs. The scheme change led to a renaissance for senior QB Kellen Clemens in 2005, and Oregon rebounded to a 10-1 regular season record. The 2006 season was far more tumultuous, but Crowton parlayed his success in Eugene into the offensive coordinator job at national power LSU. To replace him, Bellotti turned to a relatively obscure spread option guru at the University of New Hampshire: Chip Kelly.
The next time Utah played Oregon at Autzen stadium in 2009 Kelly had taken over the program. The Utes were coming off an undefeated season and victory over Nick Saban’s second Alabama team in the Sugar Bowl following the 2008 season. Many of the experienced players who had powered that team had graduated though, and Whittingham was in the midst of rebuilding. Despite an abysmal passing performance (4-16 for 101 yards with an interception), Oregon QB Jeremiah Masoli and RB LaMichael James ran the ball well enough to match Utah’s output of 24 points. A punt return touchdown by Ducks CB Walter Thurmond III provided the winning margin, and Oregon won the day 31-24. The Ducks stretched the winning streak to three in a row over the Utes in 2013 and 2014 as Utah built up depth after its move to the Pac-12. The 2014 game at Rice-Eccles looked like a trap for the Ducks at first, but an extraordinary sequence kept the Ducks from falling behind early and they held on for the win.
The two teams would split the next 4 meetings. In 2015, Oregon suffered a complete meltdown at home against the Utes with QB Vernon Adams still nursing an injured finger on his throwing hand. “Highlighted” by punt return touchdown by Utah where a decoy returner faked out the Ducks coverage unit, Oregon was run off it’s own field 62-20. Oregon was in full rebuild mode in 2016 and 2017, but pulled out upsets over the Utes in both years. The Ducks couldn’t extend the streak though, losing in SLC in 2018.
Oregon and Utah did not play in the regular season in 2019, but soon found themselves on a collision course in the Pac-12 Championship Game as front runners in their respective divisions. The Ducks laid an egg at Arizona State late in the season, meaning going into championship weekend the Utes were the last chance for a Pac-12 team to make the CFP with only 1 loss. With a conference title and a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line, the Ducks finally utilized senior QB Justin Herbert as an option in the run game. Combined with a game plan that effectively manipulated the run gap assignments of Utah’s excellent linebackers, the Utes surrendered 239 yards on the ground. The Ducks took the game 37-15 and went on to defeat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
Two years later the teams met again in Salt Lake City as leaders in their respective conference divisions. Utah countered the strategy that had exploited their run defense in 2019, and combined with a punt return touchdown in the last minute of the 2nd quarter took a big lead into halftime and the MUSS never let up. Oregon’s offense didn’t have the quick strike ability for a comeback and the Ducks playoff aspirations went up in smoke 38-7. Two weeks later, the teams played again the conference title. There were hopes that Oregon’s brain trust would make the next move in the ongoing scheme evolution and produce a different outcome. But by this time Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead were deep into arrangements for new jobs and trotted out the same game plan they had used a fortnight before. The result was nearly identical, and the Utes avenged their 2019 loss 38-10.
Last year at Autzen Dan Lanning’s first Oregon team held Utah’s offense to 10 points and the Ducks escaped 20-17 despite QB Bo Nix’s obviously limited mobility following an injury the week prior. Once again, both teams have conference championship aspirations with only one loss each. The winner today will have the easiest path to the Pac-12 Championship game besides “that northern school.” The loser will be effectively eliminated from playoff consideration and be unlikely to compete for the conference title.
Will the Ducks overcome their road woes in a hostile Rice-Eccles stadium? Or will Utah AB Bryson Barnes channel the spirit of Eumaeus and help banish the hostile takeover of his home?