Three years after enduring a four-win season, two years after Mario Cristobal took over as head coach, the UO football team was crowned Pac-12 Conference champions on Friday evening. The Ducks exploded to a 20-point lead at halftime and then rode the power of running back CJ Verdell to a 37-15 victory over Utah in Levi’s Stadium.
Oregon (11-2) moved on to a berth in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.
“We came a long way,” senior offensive lineman Shane Lemieux said. “It’s emotional, because who would have thought? With a 4-8 year one, no one would have thought.”
Verdell ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns, the most yards rushing against Utah in five years. Verdell had touchdown runs of 70 and 31 yards in the fourth quarter, as the Ducks put the game away after Utah made it a one-score game with a surge in the third quarter.
Junior safety Brady Breeze and freshman defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux set the tone for the UO defense, and senior linebacker Troy Dye helped ice the game with an interception that set up Verdell’s final touchdown. Breeze led the Ducks with nine tackles and had an interception in the first half, in which Oregon took a lead of 20-0. Thibodeaux hounded Utah quarterback Tyler Huntley all night, finishing with 2.5 sacks among his five tackles, and also blocked a punt.
“They’re a team that’s been able to run the ball on everybody,” Breeze said. “For us to be able to hold it together and have good run support, and then get some sacks, it’s incredible the way our defense rallied. We had a great week of practice, and to be able to come away with this win is indescribable.”
Senior Jake Hanson returned from missing the Civil War to start at center for a UO offensive line that dominated up front. Though the Ducks had some untimely false start penalties in the first half, the Ducks rushed for 239 yards as a team.
“I hope film looks as good as I think it does,” Lemieux said. “I’ve never seen, from the games we’ve watched, they’re a phenomenal defensive line and I think we really tested them today.”
Senior quarterback Justin Herbert helped spark that rushing attack with some early keepers in the option, going against Oregon’s tendency this season. Herbert rushed seven times for 20 yards, and completed 14-of-26 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown.
The touchdown was a 45-yard strike after a vicious double move by Johnny Johnson III as Oregon jumped out to its 20-0 halftime lead. That outburst included two field goals by Camden Lewis, and he added a third in the third quarter, between the two Utah touchdowns that briefly made it a one-score game entering the fourth quarter.