The Pac-12 entered conference championship weekend with a lead on the Big 12 in the College Football Playoff race. Those hopes have now been dashed for the third year in a row. With a 37-15 win over No. 5 Utah, No. 13 Oregon has all but officially eliminated the Pac-12 from the playoff race. The Utes, at 11-1 entering Friday, were the last remaining hope for the conference to land one of the four spots.
That sound you hear? It's from Arlington, Texas, where the Big 12 Championship Game between No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 7 Baylor is being held. The winner of that game is all but assuredly in the playoff barring a Georgia win over LSU in the SEC Championship Game.
But back to Santa Clara first. Utah has been a slow-starting team this season, but from the first quarter it was clear this would be a long night for the favored Utes. The Ducks jumped out to a 10-0 lead and never looked back thanks to a nice game plan by coach Mario Cristobal. Oregon focused heavily on inserting quarterback Justin Herbert into a read-option scheme that kept the Utes' normally stout run defense -- which ranked No. 1 in the country -- reeling. That allowed running back C.J. Verdell to rush for 208 yards and three touchdowns, including the 70-yard fourth-quarter dagger and another 31-yard score to ice the game for good.
The win marks Oregon's third Pac-12 Championship Game win, tying Stanford for the most since the conference went to 12 teams. Here's what else we learned from Friday night's beat down.
Utah picked a bad week to get worked
Look, it happens to the best of 'em. Even Alabama got outclassed in last year's playoff title game by Clemson. And while it's not always costly for the season, it also rarely comes at a good time. Utah picked a bad week to have a bad game. That's not to say Oregon doesn't deserve credit for its game plan. It does. The move to make Herbert a runner worked brilliantly. Seven carries for 20 yards (including sacks) doesn't look like much on paper, but it was the focal point of the opening scripted drive that set the tone for the rest of the game. Verdell then became a weapon that Utah had to defend while also accounting for Herbert. That, and Oregon's advantage in the trenches, created a lot of running lanes against college football's best run defense.
Oregon using Herbert in run game early opened up the ends. Then they used jet action consistently. Both of those created issues for Utah's front who was used to clogging middle and LBs/Ss handle the bounce.— Michael Felder (@InTheBleachers) December 7, 2019
But Utah didn't help itself, either. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig made some good second-half adjustments by getting Moss the ball through the air, but it was too little too late by then. Oregon had an answer for Moss on the ground and Utah didn't have the weapons to overcome that. The Utes were also poor on third and fourth downs, shot themselves in the foot repeatedly with eight penalties, including a costly false start that led to a blocked punt. The thing is, Oregon didn't even play its best game until the final 15 minutes. The Ducks had plenty of opportunities to step on Utah's throat and couldn't, and yet Utah couldn't fully take advantage. It's been a great season for Kyle Whittingham's team, they just didn't have the night they needed.
Oregon is also a tale of what could have been
Watching Oregon handle Utah for three out of four quarters was also a reminder of what could have been for the Ducks.This is a team that entered the year with playoff hopes. And while a Rose Bowl bid certainly is nothing to shrug your shoulders at, tonight's game encompassed a lot of the little things that kept Oregon from achieving everything it wanted. A prime example was red zone offense. In three trips inside the 20, including two inside the 10, the Ducks came away with nine points. Better than nothing, sure, but they looked bad in hindsight when Utah made it an eight-point game in the third quarter. If nothing else, it conjured up memories of Oregon's Week 1 loss to Auburn when Cristobal's group failed to capitalize on opportunities early and paid later because of it.
And then there's the 31-28 loss to Arizona State last month. Again, most good teams lay a stinker at least once a year, but when you lose two games by a combined nine points, it makes you wonder about the little things that could have changed the outcomes.
Kayvon Thibodeaux is your name to watch for 2020
But let's not act like Oregon's win is somehow soiled by underachievement. If anything, it provided a preview of what should be one of the most entertaining players in 2020. Thibodeaux, a freshman, was a five-star prospect who showed that, yeah, recruiting matters. Thibodeaux entered Friday night with a team-best 6.5 sacks and he added another 2.5 to that total against Utah. Thibodeaux is an athletic freak who already looks like he's so much better than what is being trotted out there to defend him. He'll command plenty of double teams in the future and should be must-see television for anyone catching the Ducks next year.