Utah is out of the National Championship hunt.
On the week leading into the PAC 12 Championship game, there was talk that the Utes – the 5th ranked team in the country with the nation’s top run defense – might deserve a shot at the final 4.
Now, 20 minutes into the game, that conversation is over.
With 5 minutes left in the first half, Oregon has taken a 20-0 lead. Utah could still come back and win it. But it won’t matter.
Oregon’s defense has looked dominant. They have blitzed the passer, shut down most of the Utah’s receivers, and carved up Utah’s offensive line.
Oregon’s Sampson Niu looks possessed, putting heat on Tyler Huntley with pressures that have easily slipped past the Utah protection.
Brady Breeze has been all over the field. Kayvon Thibodeaux blocked a Utah punt – he’s a true freshman.
Oregon looks stronger and faster (credit not only to their ability but to the amazing work put in with strength coach Aaron Feld and his staff) and they are playing well, but their two losses should put them out of National Championship conversation.
After 20 minutes and 20 Oregon points, Utah simply does not look good enough to be in that conversation either.
Oregon, however, looks strong enough, fast enough, and mentally tough enough to play with anyone in the country. These guys lift.
What Could Happen
On his way to the locker room at halftime, Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham was asked what his message to the team would be. “Just keep fighting,” he said, “we have to play through the adversity.”
If Utah pulls off a comeback win they would still be PAC 12 Champions with a chance to go win a bowl game and cap off an amazing career for one of the top classes in Utah history. Five of those seniors are heading to the Senior Bowl – more than any other team – and NFL scouts give high marks to the talent in this class. They will have the chance to win their bowl game and come home with rings.
That is a lot to play for. They could keep going.
But they could give up.
It likely depends on how they have been motivated all year. If their coaches have been using the carrot of a National Championship as their primary motivation, then taking the carrot off of the table could be devastating for the Utes.
What Should Happen
Utah should keep playing. They should play through adversity. Whether or not they have a shot at a National Championship shouldn’t matter.
They should keep playing tonight, and keep playing in the weeks to come. There has been a growing concern regarding college football players opting out of bowl games. Since Utah is no longer in contention for the big one, will players like Zach Moss, a senior All-America candidate with a future in the pros, opt out of a bowl game and focus on his NFL career?
Moss should play. They should all play. Hopefully Whittingham and his coaches have been using more sustainable means of motivation than the National Championship. The core source of motivation – the motive – should be inside the locker room.
The motivation should be to play for their school, for their coaches, for each other. If a team is talented enough, then they need only two things to win: elite execution and the genuine desire to compete with and for each other.
There is victory in that mindset. Oregon seems to have it.
The second half has just begun and the Utes still have the opportunity to finish strong. They should take it.