SALT LAKE CITY — The Oregon Ducks had toppled fearsome Ohio State on the road at the Horseshoe. They had chipped through their Pac-12 Conference schedule and stumbled just once, in overtime, at Stanford. They rose to become the nation’s third-ranked team.
But at Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday night, the College Football Playoff ambitions of Oregon and the Pac-12 turned about as dark as the Wasatch Range that loomed in the distance after sunset: The No. 23 Utes handily disassembled the Ducks, 38-7.
The team that logged 505 yards against Ohio State mustered only 294 on Saturday night, including just 63 yards on the ground. The team that had arrived in Salt Lake City with a perfect record for field goals this season missed two in the first half. And those were not even the worst of the special teams debacles; as the first half ended, Britain Covey returned a punt for a touchdown to push Utah’s lead to 28-0.
“We’re upset, we’re disappointed in ourselves,” Mario Cristobal, Oregon’s coach, said afterward, when he insisted that Oregon, which could still earn a berth in next month’s Pac-12 championship game, still had plenty of goals within reach.
“They blocked well, and they ran the ball well,” Cristobal, whose team did not reach the end zone until nearly five minutes into the second half, also said. “It’s as simple as that. It’s blocking and tackling, and they did it better than us.”
With just more than 11 minutes to play in the first quarter, Utah’s offense trotted to its own 37. Tavion Thomas, a 221-pound tailback from Ohio who later in the night broke Utah’s record for rushing touchdowns in a season, picked up four yards. Cameron Rising, Utah’s sophomore quarterback, tried a pass that wound up incomplete.
The Utes went back to the ground and, in a matter of minutes, seemed to take control. Utah ran for 49 yards across the next nine plays. Then, on a third and 9 after a missed pass, Thomas gathered force, slipping through a swarm of defenders and ran 10 yards for a touchdown. The last Duck with a chance had been at least a step away.
But maybe, the thinking around Rice-Eccles went, Oregon could still rouse its offense. It was a worthy thought: Helped along by a pass interference penalty, the Ducks marched 47 yards. Oregon reached Utah’s 18 before summoning a kicker, Camden Lewis, for a 36-yard try. Cole Bishop batted it away.
The Oregon defense held Utah scoreless on the home team’s next possession. But Utah’s four succeeding drives added up to 24 points, with no score more suffocating than Covey’s return. Utah did not stop scoring until midway through the fourth quarter.
“They played the best football game I could see a team play,” Anthony Brown, the Oregon quarterback who went 17 for 35 for 231 passing yards, said. Rising, his Utah counterpart, was 10 for 18 for 178 yards.
Utah, of course, has a glorious history of spoiling others’ big games. It is a program that embarrassed Alabama in a Sugar Bowl, that humiliated Pittsburgh in a Fiesta Bowl, that wrecked Jim Harbaugh’s debut as Michigan’s coach. (Kyle Whittingham, who led Utah in all of those games, on Saturday night earned his 142nd victory as a head coach, a school record.)
No matter. As time ticked down on a chilly night, the stadium announcer gently pleaded with fans to thwart the joyous uprising that felt inevitable.
“Please do not rush the field,” he said. “We ask that you celebrate safely in the stands.”
Many rushed the field anyway.
It was the third game of the day that effectively eliminated a top-10 team from playoff contention — No. 7 Michigan State fell, 56-7, at fourth-ranked Ohio State, and No. 10 Wake Forest lost, 48-27, at Clemson. But Oregon’s loss was perhaps the most consequential. As soon as Tuesday night, when the playoff rankings are updated, Cincinnati, the fifth-ranked belle of the American Athletic Conference, could be on the fast track to a semifinal showdown.
Indeed, for all of the ways any year in college football can seem a muddle, the harsh history for Oregon is that no two-loss team has appeared in a semifinal game since the playoff debuted with the 2014 season. The Pac-12 has not had a team in the playoff since the 2016 season.
“This season has been all over the place: I think we have the best out-of-conference win at Ohio State, and I think we took some losses out of conference that we should never take,” George Kliavkoff, the Pac-12 commissioner, said in an interview at the stadium on Saturday.
“It’s frustrating, and I’m hoping for more consistency out of all of our teams going forward,” he added, “and I’m particularly looking forward to those teams in our league that are going to have the opportunity to attract some really great coaches.”
The disparities on Saturday’s scoreboard notwithstanding, Oregon and Utah could meet again in less than two weeks in Las Vegas. The Ducks, after all, can still reach the Pac-12 championship game that will include the Utes. But on Saturday night, the Ducks were left in measured agony over how their season could have featured a playoff run have already come up short.
“We knew what we could have been,” Brown said before adding, “The potential was there. We just didn’t maximize it.”