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Seeds for Oregon Upset Were Planted Early at Utah

Bryan Fischer@BryanDFischerNational College Football Columnist September 29, 2015

Oregon wide receiver Charles Nelson (6) is brought down by Utah defenders during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Ryan Kang/Associated Press

The most shocking result of the weekend without question was Utah’s 62-20 upset of Oregon. The Utes not only laid an extraordinary thumping on the home team at Autzen Stadium, but they sent shock waves from coast to coast in significantly shaking up the College Football Playoff picture.

The team picked up its first-ever regular-season first-place vote in the AP Top 25 as a result of the resounding Week 4 win. And the Utes have started to appear in the national conversation for a semifinal berth thanks to their 4-0 start that began by topping Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan squad in the much-publicized opener.

While the final score line may have been eye-opening for everybody, inside the Utah program there was quite a bit of confidence it would be able to get the job done despite having to go to Eugene, where so many Pac-12 squads had tripped up recently.

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

“Oregon is a heck of a football team and that’s a great program. I don’t think you ever go into Autzen Stadium and say we’re going to lay one on these guys,” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham told Bleacher Report. “But you have confidence in yourself. Our preparation through the course of the week was outstanding and our players were completely dialed in and focused.

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“We did feel very confident.”

That confidence was a bit limited when it came to quarterback Travis Wilson, however. After suffering a shoulder injury against Utah State in Week 2, the signal-caller’s ability to play was in question until late in the week.

In fact, it wasn’t until late on Thursday before Wilson was even cleared and the coaching staff felt comfortable in sending him out onto the field. While there were not many adjustments made to protect his shoulder, it didn’t seem to matter after Wilson’s heroic effort included four touchdown passes and a fifth on the ground to go with 100 yards rushing.

“Without a doubt it was the best game he played as a Ute,” Whittingham said. “It really started last season. He really started showing signs of playing with a great deal of confidence and poise and command of our offense.”

Nothing illustrated that more than when the team really broke open the game in a decidedly Oregon-like fashion. After Ducks quarterback Jeff Lockie found Bralon Addison in the end zone to cut Utah’s lead to seven and appeared to right the ship for the home team, Wilson promptly led his offense down the field for a response that was highlighted by a 60-yard scamper.

The Utes promptly scored two plays later and then, coming out of halftime, marched 75 yards in six plays for another touchdown. The final nail in the coffin came shortly thereafter when Utah’s swarming defense picked off Lockie and returned the ball to the opposing 25-yard line.

Already up 34-13 at the time, Whittingham decided the conditions called for a play that had been in the works since early in fall camp. Running back Devonate Booker had been pestering the coaches to allow him to showcase his strong arm on a halfback pass, and that’s precisely what he did with a third-quarter strike to Britain Covey to push the lead to a nearly unfathomable four scores.

Utah Athletics @utahathletics

Booker as QB? Booker throws a TD? Wow...this game. #BookMode #BookerForHeisman http://t.co/e6rEz3qH62

 “A couple of those we had been working on for a few weeks. We weren’t working on them to have them in mind to save them for Oregon, but we were going to use them if the right opportunity came up and it just so happened to come up,” Whittingham said. “A lot of those specials have certain parameters—you have to be in a certain part of the field, on this hash mark, in this down and distance—and so many variables that they don’t always get dialed up. But the circumstances were just right against Oregon.”

The Utes appeared to turn the corner as a power-conference team last season, when they posted a 9-4 record and were a contender in the South Division race until the very end. For the first time since joining the Pac-12, however, Utah captured its league opener with the win at Oregon and looks like UCLA’s top contender for the division’s spot in the title game in December.  

After a trying offseason that included several notable coaching staff departures and a handful of players moving onto the NFL, the veteran head coach in Salt Lake City was still assured about his team heading into 2015 and appeared to be even more so after the big win Saturday coupled with a Top 10 ranking Sunday.

“It was a fun film to watch; there was a lot of good stuff,” Whittingham conceded before reverting back to coachspeak. “But there were still a lot of things that we have to get better at.

“One game doesn’t make or break your season, but it certainly is a good start to conference play.”

Even after slaying a Pac-12 giant and starting out fast in league play, there appears to be plenty Utah can still improve on. That’s a scary thought for upcoming opponent Cal and the rest of the Pac-12.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can follow Bryan Fischer on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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