By Rob Moseley
At halftime Saturday, Oregon led Utah 17-7. The Ducks had 10 rushing yards on 15 carries, Marcus Mariota had been sacked three times, and the UO offense was 0-of-5 on third down.
On the heels of a loss at Stanford in which Oregon was shut out through three quarters, things might have seemed ominous. Not so, the Ducks said.
“We don’t get our heads down if we’re not up 48-0 at the half,” said Mariota, whose 13-of-16 passing for 180 yards and two touchdowns provided Oregon’s halftime lead. “We play in a tough conference. …
“There was no sense of panic at all. The offensive line responded. They came out and started pushing the line of scrimmage in the second half, and that was pivotal.”
The result was a 44-21 win over the Utes in Autzen Stadium. The Ducks ran for more than six yards per carry in the second half, benefitted from a kickoff return touchdown by De'Anthony Thomas and also exorcised any remaining demons from the defeat to the Cardinal.
“Last week was last week, and last week was over with,” running back Byron Marshall said. “People realized that. That was the biggest thing. This was a test, and I think we handled it well.”
It’s a test Oregon has passed a few times over recent seasons. Not since 2007, in the wake of Dennis Dixon’s knee injury, had the Ducks lost consecutive games in the same season.
Other than two broken plays for long passing gains by Utah, Oregon’s defense did its part to continue that trend Saturday. The offense, meanwhile, overcame its early struggles to make it a blowout after halftime, a more typical script to a UO football game.
Hroniss Grasu called Utah’s defensive front “just as physical and just as big as Stanford’s.” The Utes might have been more active schematically, too, particularly in the use of zone-blitzing, an adjustment the Ducks made at halftime.
The result was 20 points for Oregon in the third quarter, and another touchdown for Mariota, Marshall and company early in the fourth quarter, before the Ducks turned to their backups.
“The way we were running the ball (early), it played to their strengths,” said Marshall, who had 66 yards on 11 carries, leaving him nine yards shy of 1,000 for the season. “So it took us a little longer than normal to get going. But once we did, nothing could stop us.”
Meanwhile, Mariota was doing plenty through the air to keep the Ducks in control. He finished 19-of-26 for 288 yards and three touchdowns, giving him 25 touchdowns this season, and no interceptions.
“Some games, you run it to open up the pass,” UO offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. “This game, it worked in the opposite direction.”
Mariota played his second full game with a brace on his left knee, which he began doing in the second half against UCLA. He had four carries for minus-18 yards – three sacks on which he lost 23 yards, and one scramble for five yards.
“Utah did a good job of keeping me in the pocket; they did a good job of making me hand off the ball in the zone-read stuff,” Mariota said. “It’s not a concern for me, about my knee. I’ve learned to play with it, and I’m not going to let it be an excuse.”
Mariota was asked after the game about the risk associated with staying on the field this season, giving what are considered bright NFL prospects.
“The guys in the locker room, they mean the world to me,” he said. “It doesn’t matter the type of risk that’s involved; every time you step out on the field you have the danger of (injury). That’s just the game we play. I’m not going to let my knee be an excuse.
“I love those guys with all my heart in the locker room. I’m going to fight and battle to the very end with them. They would have to pull me off the field before I wouldn’t play.”