Oregon, Nix, show grit as Ducks turn back Utah for 20-17 win
Saturday's 20-17 win over Utah at Autzen Stadium improves Oregon to 9-2 (7-1 Pac-12) and keeps alive Ducks' Rose Bowl hopes.
Trib's take: This is one of the more meaningful and satisfying wins for Oregon in recent memory. The Ducks had multiple opportunities to hang their collective heads and to question if it would be their night, but Bo Nix, Bennett Williams and others wouldn't let that happen.
Sure, Oregon was held to only 20 points, and didn't score a touchdown over the final 40 minutes. Sure, the Ducks gave away momentum on multiple occasions, the most egregious the first offensive snap after halftime when they handed the Utes a touchdown. But, hobbled by an injured right ankle, Nix seemed to will the Ducks to victory. It was appropriate that it was his one run of the night, for two yards on a third-and-1, that clinched the 20-17 victory.
In his postgame interview on ESPN, Nix admitted he wasn't sure during the week that he could play, and that the theme of the night was toughness. He personified that in completing 25 of 37 throws for 287 yards and a touchdown with one interception. On a night when Utah stacked the box and shut down Oregon's ground game (59 net yards, 2.4 per carry), Nix moved the offense by getting the ball out of his hand quickly and letting playmakers make plays.
If that was the last game Nix plays at Autzen Stadium, it should be his most remembered. Sure, he's had all kinds of big statistical days in his one season as a Duck, but Saturday's grit and leadership should long be remembered by the Ducks' faithful.
In many ways, this is a game the Ducks should have lost. Utah had the ball for 12 more plays and seven more minutes. The Utes converted 8 of 15 third downs and had four drives of 10 or more plays. But, they only produced 10 offensive points.
Let's also give credit to the Oregon defensive line. The Ducks were able to disrupt Utah quarterback Cam Rising without blitzing much and held a Utes' ground game capable of dictating play to 4.3 yards per carry. And let's credit the much-maligned defensive backfield, most notably safety Bennett Williams. A week after getting beat for two long touchdowns in the loss to Washington, Williams was in on 14 tackles (seven solo) and twice intercepted Rising.
Yes, the Utes — specifically Rising — failed to make plays that were there to be made on a couple of key fourth downs late in the game. But, after the defensive debacle against Washington, the Oregon defense came up big on this night, despite being on the field for multiple extended Utah drives.
We also want to tip our cap to Oregon kicker Camden Lewis, whose field goals of 30 and 41 yards, the second breaking a 17-17 tie, were critical. Lewis is 12 for 13 on field goals this season.
Big picture: Beating Utah was emotional in part because of what the Utes did to the Ducks in 2021. What it means for 2022 is that Oregon (9-2, 7-1 Pac-12) will return to the Pac-12 championship game if it can beat Oregon State (8-3) next weekend. Make no mistake, that will be no easy task. The Beavers' defense is the best in the Pac-12, and especially nasty in games at Reser Stadium. And, if the Oregon offensive line is as beat up as it was on Saturday (center Alex Forsyth, that unit's leader and the man who calls signals up front was unable to play in his final game at Autzen Stadium), finding success in Corvallis will be that much tougher.
But, there should be no questioning the Ducks' toughness. They still control their destiny, which is a big deal. (Oregon also clinches a spot in the Pac-12 title game if Washington State beats Washington next Saturday in Pullman).
And, while several coaching decisions will be questioned, in the big picture the way Dan Lanning and his young staff have gotten the team to respond after each of their two tough losses should not be overlooked.
Oh, yes!: For a guy who throws right-handed, an injured right ankle impacts the ability to step into throws. Yet Nix made a few impressive throws, including a pair of deep balls that Dante Thornton made nice catches on. The most memorable pass, though, was his jump pass to Troy Franklin for the second Oregon TD, on a third-and-goal play from the 4 in the second quarter.
Oh, no!: Oregon's first offensive play after halftime was an example of coaches getting too cute. Ty Thompson lined up at quarterback (his lone snap of the game, it turned out) and tried to pitch the ball to Thornton, but the receiver couldn't handle the pitch and Utah's Karene Reid scooped up the ball and carried it 11 yards to the end zone. The play completely changed the feel in the stadium, gave Utah life, and will lead to plenty of head scratching.
Look, we applaud Lanning's boldness, and we still defend his decision-making in the loss to Washington. But this was an indefensible coaching decision.
Next game: Oregon at Oregon State, time TBD. Saturday, Nov. 26 (TV TBD).
For more: Read our weekly On College Football column at pamplinmedia.com most Mondays, in print each Wednesday.
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