Gritty Win Puts Title Game In Sight
EUGENE, Ore. — Oregon is a game away from playing for the Pac-12 Championship, after bouncing back from defeat for the second time this season with a gritty 20-17 victory Saturday over defending conference champion Utah.
A week after missing a series due to injury, Bo Nix started and threw for 287 yards. He was limited to only one designed run all night, but he made it count, diving for two yards when Oregon needed at least one to ice the game in the fourth quarter.
The UO defense, meanwhile, got 14 tackles and two interceptions from safety Bennett Williams, who took responsibility for a late touchdown by Washington in Oregon's loss to the Huskies the week before. Noah Sewell added eight tackles and a third interception of Utah quarterback Cameron Rising, as the defense stepped up on a night the Ducks scored their fewest points in Pac-12 play this season.
"We had Bo's back," said UO defensive lineman Casey Rogers, who got in on two of the Ducks' six tackles for loss. "We knew what he went through last week to get his ankle right. It just shows you what type of kid he is, how tough he is. We knew he was putting his body on the line. We had to get his back, and I think that's something we did."
Oregon (9-2, 7-1 Pac-12 ) wraps up the season next Saturday at Oregon State, and a win propels the Ducks to the Pac-12 title game Dec. 2 in Las Vegas. Oregon also would advance to face USC in Las Vegas with a win by Washington State in the Apple Cup.
Game times for those matchups were expected to be announced early Sunday.
Nix was injured in the fourth quarter against Washington, and though he returned for the final series of that game, his status against the Utes was in question all week. Oregon ended up receiving the opening kickoff Saturday, and before Autzen Stadium PA announcer Don Essig could announce Nix as the UO quarterback for the opening possession, the stadium erupted at the sight of Nix jogging out to start the game.
"There's times (earlier in the week) I was like, you know what, I can go out there and manage," Nix said of his recovery. "And then there was times I was like, I can't even walk — I don't know how I'm gonna be able to do that.
"You know, I felt like the team deserved my shot. I felt like the team deserved for me to go out there and give them what I had. Because they work tirelessly all week, through injuries themselves, through some sickness. And so, I did it all for my teammates."
In a concession to the injury, Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham crafted a game plan that called for Nix to largely stay in the pocket and try to beat the Utes with his arm. He finished the game 25-of-37 passing, with a touchdown pass to Troy Franklin in the second quarter.
That gave Oregon a 14-3 lead, after Bucky Irving had rushed for a touchdown on the opening possession. But the Ducks would muster just six more points the rest of the night, field goals by Camden Lewis that gave them a 17-3 halftime lead and then a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter.
The Ducks lost some momentum just after halftime, when a trick play with Nix on the sideline backfired, and Utah returned a fumble for a touchdown. The Utes then tied it 17-17 late in the third quarter. But Lewis put Oregon back in front with a 41-yard kick moments later, and the UO defense turned the Utes over on downs twice while also recording their third interception later in the fourth quarter.
"I didn't win that game," said Lewis, who is 12-of-13 on field-goal attempts this season. "Bo Nix won that game. The defense won that game."
Utah's last best chance might have come with 5:50 left in the fourth quarter, after Nix was intercepted for the first time in November. But four plays later, after the 11th catch of the game by Utes tight end Dalton Kincaid, Rising tried to make it an even dozen receptions for Kincaid and Williams sniffed it out.
"We knew that they were gonna try to get the ball to him, especially in that fourth quarter," Williams said. "When it's on the line, we know they're going to (Kincaid). He got me a couple times today, but I had to get him back. …
"That second pick, that was a lot of film study, knew exactly what he was gonna run. Got to jump that route, and luckily, the ball was thrown right there. I just thought, don't drop it."
The big play for Williams came a week after he took responsibility for a long pass play that allowed Washington to score a touchdown that sparked a fourth-quarter comeback to beat the Ducks.
"Last week, I wasn't able to make the play," said Williams, who conducted his postgame interview Saturday with the balls from his two interceptions cradled in his arms. "But you've got to own it, right? And that's what enabled me this week to be able to go out there and not have that fear."
An empty possession for each team followed Williams' second interception, and the Ducks took over again up 20-17 with 1:57 left in the game. Utah called its final timeout with 1:47 left and Oregon facing third-and-one near midfield. To that point in the game, Nix's only official run play was a sack. Coaches asked if he'd be comfortable with a play that gave him the option to run it himself.
"He said, 'Absolutely,' " UO coach Dan Lanning related later. "The guy's got heart. He cares about the game, he cares about his team and I think it shows in the way he plays."
Nix ran for the first down despite his ankle injury. The Ducks would hold on, and beat the Utes after two losses to them late last season.
"It was a good feeling, because you know he wants it," Franklin said of watching Nix run for the first down. "You know he'll do anything for his team."
Now, all that lies between the Ducks and a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game is their in-state rival, on the road. A week after having their College Football Playoff hopes crippled, there remains much to play for as Oregon wraps up the regular season.
"There's an awareness obviously of what exists in front of us," Lanning said. "But you know, I think we've played our best when we've focused on what's next. That was elite game; all of our focus and attention was on that game. And now it's going to be on the next one. You worry about the things you can control, and what we can control is how we go perform now against a really good Oregon State team."