SANTA CLARA- In a battle for the Pac-12 Conference Championship between its two most physical teams, the No. 13 Oregon Ducks (11-2, 8-1 Pac-12) beat No. 5 Utah at Levi’s Stadium to win its first conference championship since 2014.
The 37-15 win ties Oregon with Stanford for most Pac-12 Championship Game victories (3).
Also, do you smell the roses? Oregon earned the program’s eighth appearance in the Rose Bowl with the win.
Here are the top three takeaways from the contest.
1. Run, Herbert, Run!
Oregon couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. On the opening drive of the game, the Ducks flexed their strength in the trenches with a defensive stop on fourth-and-short.
The defense put the offense in the position to succeed… Which it did. Quarterback Justin Herbert’s legs added a wrinkle that Utah’s defense wasn’t prepared for. On one of Oregon’s best drives of the season, Herbert kept it on the zone read to rush for 22 yards. Running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio punched in a seven-yard touchdown to cap a nine-play, 67-yard drive and give Oregon an early 7-0 lead.
Did Oregon wait three months to set up this mobile Herbert? If so, it worked. Oregon’s 10 first quarter points tie the most against Utah this season (with USC, Utah’s only loss). Oregon totaled 263 yards of offense in the first half and Utah entered the game allowing 241.6 yards per game.
2. Explosion plays
This season, Utah has allowed just four plays of 40 or more yards.
In the first half alone, Oregon had two explosive, momentum-building plays of 40+ yards.
Herbert showed off his great touch on a deep ball to wide receiver Juwan Johnson, a 50-yard gain to the two-yard line. Then, wide receiver Johnny Johnson III burned the Utah corner to get wide open for a 45-yard touchdown. The junior’s touchdown grab is his fifth in the last four games.
Running back CJ Verdell earned the longest run in Pac-12 Championship history in the 4th quarter with a 70-yard touchdown rush. Verdell finished with 208 yards rushing.
Johnson III had an unbelievable 33-yard grab in double coverage over the back of a Utah defender.
3. Duck defense in the clutch
Against the Pac-12 conference’s most efficient quarterback Tyler Huntley and best running back Zack Moss, the Duck defense held Utah to zero points in the first half. It marked Oregon’s eighth game in which Oregon didn’t allow a touchdown in the first half. Utah was held scoreless in the first half for the first time this season.
Oregon made big stops in the clutch, holding Utah to 0-for-6 on third down and 0-for-2 on fourth down in the first half. Brady Breeze also grabbed an interception, only Huntley’s third of the season.
One of the biggest stops came with 7:45 left in the third quarter, Utah went for it on 4-and-2, trailing 20-7 and don’t convert. Thomas Graham came up with the deflection to give the ball to the offense at midfield.
In the end, Oregon ended Utah’s eight-game winning steak, halting the Utes’ College Football Playoff dreams.
More to come with quotes and videos from Coach Mario Cristobal and Ducks players.