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September 20, 2009

Out of Reach

Utah (2-1) dropped a close game on the road to the Oregon Ducks (2-1), 31-24. The loss dropped the previously 16th-ranked Utes out of the polls.

Utah safety Robert Johnson single-handedly kept the Utes in the ballgame, returning a fumble 28 yards for a touchdown and intercepting a fourth-quarter pass in the endzone for a touchback. "Robert Johnson, he's a playmaker, one of the best safeties in the conference," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "That's what he's been doing for us for three years now." Johnson took little consolation for his play, saying mistakes he made led to points for the Ducks. "They just got more big plays than us," Johnson said.

One of those big plays came with the Utes driving late in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Terrance Cain threw a deep pass to David Reed that came up a bit short and was intercepted by Oregon safety John Boyett. "That's on me," Cain said. "I should have put it a little more out there so David could've had a chance."

Big plays were the story of the game, and big plays on special teams were the difference for the Ducks. After a quick three-and-out by the Utah offense to start the game, Oregon star Walter Thurmond III returned Sean Sellwood's punt 78 yards for the first points of the ballgame. Oregon is now 5-0 when Thurmond scores a touchdown. All told, Oregon gained over 200 yards on special teams and provided the difference in a close ballgame.

After the Utes turned the ball over on downs, the defense held Oregon and forced a punt. Special teams standout Aiona Key blocker the Duck punt, and Cain scored on a 19-yard run on the next play.

Both defenses played well in the rainy first half, but Oregon's offense took advantage of breakdowns to turn big plays into scores. Jeremiah Masoli found receiver Jeff Maehl for a 58-yard pass completion to set up a short touchdown run at the end of the first quarter. A 27-yard pass from Masoli to Jamere Holland set up a 22-yard touchdown run by Masoli late in the second quarter and a 21-7 lead. Utah had a chance to pull close at the end of the first half. The Utes elected to go for a touchdown with two seconds left in the half and the ball at the Oregon two yard line, but the fade pass to Reed was broken up by Thurmond. "Defensive player made a great play," Cain said.

The wet conditions lifted in the second half, and Utah's offense found a rhythm, picking apart the Oregon defense and driving down the field before settling for a field goal and a 21-10 deficit. Oregon's offense responded immediately with a 7-play, 68-yard touchdown drive that included yet another big play, a 45-yard run by running back LaMichael James. Utah's offense would not quit, and came back with a touchdown drive of their own that ended with a 22-yard pass from Cain to Jereme Brooks. Johnson's fumble recovery occurred on the ensuing Oregon drive, and the entertaining third quarter ended with the Ducks up 28-24, setting the stage for the intense fourth quarter.

Utah's inexperience on offense and the two late interceptions hurt their chances for a dramatic comeback, something that should be expected from a young team in a hostile road game. "We're going through some growing pains right now as a team," Whittingham said. "We're still figuring out who we are in a lot of ways but I'll tell you one thing, I'm as proud as can be of this football team for hanging in there and finding a way to have a chance to win at the end. They made the play, we didn't. I'm very proud of them."


Game Balls
UTAH: Robert Johnson and Terrance Cain. Johnson's big plays on defense gave the Utes a chance to pull even and send the game to overtime, the Utes just couldn't finish on offense. Johnson finished with five tackles. Despite the two fourth quarter interceptions, Cain was the Utah offense. Cain led the Utes with 68 yards rushing, using his feet to buy time for receivers who did not get open or running for first downs. Utah receivers also dropped several passes.

Oregon: LaMichael James and Walter Thurmond. James ran wild on the Utah defense, setting career highs with 27 carries, 157 yards, and a touchdown. James' 45-yard run in the third quarter helped turn momentum back to the Ducks and set up the key score of the game. Thurmond's punt return for a touchdown was big, and might have been the difference in the game. Thurmond's play at cornerback was also key, as he recorded three tackles, limited Reed in the passing game and broke up two passes, including the fade route in the endzone at the end of the first half.




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