Ducks sprint past Utah
EUGENE — From Oregon's perspective, Saturday was about happy returns.
There was Ugo Amadi's 47-yard fumble return for a second-quarter touchdown.
There was the return of some explosive second-half offense.
And, most significantly, the return of optimism as Oregon scored more points in Saturday's 41-20 win over Utah at Autzen Stadium than it had in the three previous games combined.
The one notable return that did not happen was that of quarterback Justin Herbert. The sophomore warmed up but was limited to signaling plays from the sidelines as Braxton Burmeister earned his first win as a starting quarterback.
Thus ended a three-game skid that seriously threatened the Ducks' goal of returning to bowl eligibility. They aren't there yet — and next Saturday's visit to Husky Stadium figures to provide a stiff challenge. But at 5-4 (2-4 Pac-12) Oregon needs one more win to become eligible for a bowl and will have two more chances to play at home with Arizona and Oregon State coming to Eugene to complete the schedule.
Coach Willie Taggart pointed to a focus on fundamentals and a more positive attitude as the main ingredients to this victory.
"We were more fundamentally and technically sound in the ballgame. That to me, on top of our attitude, is the reason why we were losing," Taggart said.
Two memorable plays helped turn this game for the Ducks.
In the second quarter, Amadi stripped the ball from Darren Carrington after the former Ducks receiver caught a swing pass six yards behind the line of scrimmage. Amadi picked up the loose ball and dashed 47 yards for a touchdown that put Oregon ahead 17-3.
Amadi said stripping the ball was a matter of executing what he practices.
"We knew from watching film that (Carrington) was very vulnerable of leaving the ball out. And Coach Taggart always talks about getting the ball out. Doesn't matter who it is."
Taggart said it was a thrill to see that momentum play.
"For me as a coach that was big-time because we harp on (stripping the ball loose) so much in practice," Taggart said.
Carrington, who was dismissed by Taggart after being cited over the summer for DUII, caught nine passes for 130 yards. He said he enjoyed playing at Autzen again.
"It was great, just felt like a high school game playing against my boys down the street," Carrington said. "You know how I feel, this is my home, them boys played a great game. We didn't come out like we should have. They got the 'W.'"
As for the consistent boos from the Ducks fans?
"I expected it, but it was kind of ridiculous, especially as many plays as I made here," Carrington said.
The second game-defining play was a 23-yard touchdown connection between Charles Nelson and tight end Jacob Breeland.
On a third-and-14 play from the Utes' 22, Nelson took a pitch. Sprinting to his right, Nelson escaped a tackle by Utah's Marquise Blair, stumbled, then threw the ball toward the end zone.
Breelend outjumped a trio of Utah defenders and came down with a touchdown that made the score 27-13 Ducks with 3:27 left in the third quarter.
"There was supposed to be nobody (defending) on that side, but they had like three guys over there," Nelson said. "I just told myself 'Be a ballplayer.' That's what I did, kept my feet. Then threw a 50-50 ball to Jake Breeland, and he came down with it."
That two-score lead allowed Oregon to finish off things running the ball.
Running behind a determined offensive line — and finding consistent success running -- left the Ducks at 347 yards on the ground. Royce Freeman rushed for 139 yards on 20 carries, and Tony Brooks-James had 105 yards and a touchdown on six carries.
Freeman gave credit to the offensive line that consistently moved Utah defenders off the line of scrimmage.
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham pointed to Oregon's ground game as the difference.
"The perimeter run game in particular, our inability to stop the perimeter run game. was the difference in this football game," he said.
From the Oregon perspective, 24 second-half points after struggling to score after halftime in most of this season's games, was a significant upgrade.
It also was necessary after Utah opened the half with a crazy touchdown. On a fourth-down play from the Oregon 1, Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley had his pass tipped by a Ducks defender. Utes right tackle Darrin Paulo, while falling down, caught the ball as he landed in the end zone. The fact that the ball was tipped made it legal for Paulo to catch the ball.
The Ducks offense responded with two scoring drives, to an Aidan Schneider field goal and to the Breeland snare to take a 27-13 lead after three quarters.
The running game helped freshman Burmeister play a steady game. He completed 9 of 12 passes for 47 yards. His longest completion was 15 yards, but he kept a couple of drives alive with third-down conversions.
According to Taggart, Herbert could have played if needed. But he was glad to see progress from Burmeister.
"It was great for him to be at home and get his first victory as a starting quarterback," Taggart said. "He was in more control. He had a good week of practice. He was in control of what we were doing."
The defense controlled the line of scrimmage for much of the afternoon. Utah was limited to 91 yards on 30 attempts on the ground and converted a combined 5 of 18 on third and fourth downs.
Having Herbert back at practice was an emotional lift, according to Oregon started the game efficiently, driving 75 yards on 11 plays and scoring on a 5-yard throw from Burmeister to tight end Cam McCormick. It was his third completion of the drive, but the biggest play was his 15-yard scramble to the 7 on a third-and-11 play that followed a procedure penalty.
Taggart said his team has learned the value of staying positive when faced with challenges.
"You can't worry about losing. We've got to go into every game expecting to win," Taggart said. "I didn't think during the losing streak we went into every game expecting to win. Our guys stopped feeling sorry for themselves and decided to go out and play football like they're capable of."
UTAH 0 6 7 7—20
OREGON 7 10 10 14—41
O — Cam McCormick 5 pass from Braxton Burmeister (Aidan Schneider kick), 9:55
U — Matt Gay 23 FG, 14:50
O — Schneider 23 FG, 8:40
O — Ugo Amadi 47 fumble return (Schneider kick), 5:54
U — Gay 34 FG, 3:42
U — Darrin Paulo 2 pass from Tyler Huntley (Gay kick), 11:36
O — Schneider 38 FG, 9:14
O — Jacob Breeland 22 pass from Charles Nelson (Schneider kick), 3:27
O — Tony Brooks-James 23 run (Schneider kick)
U — Siaosi Wilson 29 pass from Huntley (Gay kick), 9:57
O — Kani Benoit 21 run (Schneider kick), 2:10