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'Gutty' Ducks have to move forward

Injuries put damper on tough win at Utah, huge turn of events via 100-yard fumble return

SALT LAKE CITY — Injuries could factor into Oregon's football team moving forward, but they'll move forward as Pac-12 North Division champs as they finish the conference season with games against Colorado and Oregon State. Then, it's the league championship.

Center Hroniss Grasu (left leg) and tight end Pharaoh Brown (right leg) appeared to suffer serious injuries Saturday night at Utah, which put a damper on an otherwise thrilling 51-27 win against the Utes at rowdy Rice-Eccles Stadium.

The Ducks moved to 9-1 overall and 6-1 in Pac-12 play and will likely remain in the picture for the national college football playoff — although injuries to two important starters could hurt.

But the Ducks still have quarterback Marcus Mariota, who added to his substantial Heisman Trophy resume by accounting for four touchdowns — three passing, one rushing. And, the Ducks continue to persevere when challenged, and enjoyed some good fortune, as when Joe Walker picked up an unbelievable Kaelin Clay fumble and ran 100 yards for a touchdown Saturday night, derailing Utah's early momentum.

As long as we all live, we may not see such a pivotal drop-the-ball-before-scoring fumble as we saw by Clay.

The Utes later rallied, before Mariota's 34-yard TD pass to Dwayne Stanford and a 1-yard Mariota TD run created some distance for the Ducks in the fourth quarter.

Mariota was subdued after the game, seemingly because of his buddy Grasu's injury, but he was happy with his team.

"We've had a lot of (gut checks) this year. Our team believes in each other," said Mariota, who went 17 of 29 for 239 yards, and netted 114 yards rushing on 18 carries, including four sacks for minus-28 yards. It was another Heisman Trophy kind of game; it's too bad the game started at 10 p.m. Eastern Time.

Said Mariota: "Even when the game gets close, our team looks at each other and, 'We can do this.' That's awesome to be a part of, a great thing to be a part of. We can always get better — clean up some penalties and stuff like that. But to come out with this win against a very good team on the road is huge."

The Ducks, who have a bye before playing Colorado on Nov. 22, clinched the North Division because, at 6-1, the worst that could happen is they would lose to Colorado and Oregon State to finish 6-3 while Stanford wins their final three league games to finish 6-3. Oregon would get the tiebreaker, having beaten Stanford.

Oregon will play in the Pac-12 title game Dec. 5 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.; Arizona State, which routed Notre Dame on Saturday, leads the South Division at 5-1 with games remaining against Oregon State, Washington State and Arizona. USC, UCLA and Arizona each have two league losses.

"Guys are really motivated," Mariota added. "Most teams, especially with a bye week coming up, really want to relax. Those guys in the locker room were really focused and said, 'Let's come back Sunday and get ready for Colorado.' It says something about the character of these guys."

Indeed, the Ducks have some down time now, during which players can get healthier — cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and defensive lineman Alex Balducci also were injured — while they learn the status of Grasu and Brown.

"We'll find out," coach Mark Helfrich said. "I don't know — and it's the truth.

"Lot more ball to play. Hopefully we use this time to get healthier and smarter. We're of the mind-set of grind, grind and stick with the process."

There were many highlights from the game, including Grant High grad Aidan Schneider kicking three field goals, a 42-yarder included. The nine points helped keep Utah at a distance, after the Ducks bolted to a 21-7 lead in the first half following one of the most bizarre sequences you will ever see.

Leading 7-0 and coming off a timeout, Utah appeared to go up 14-0 when Clay caught a Travis Wilson pass and scored on a 79-yard pass play, streaking by safety Erick Dargan for the score. But as players sometimes do — including Byron Marshall earlier in the year — Clay dropped the ball too early, thinking he had reached the end zone.

Clay and Utah players celebrated. The crowd was going crazy. Some Ducks even stood idle. But Dargan noticed something.

"I didn't see (the touchdown signal)," he said. "Me and the referee made eye contact, and it was an awkward moment. Anytime on a play like that we're trained to pick it up and go. If it's ruled down, it's ruled down.

"He dropped it a little too early. (Me and Walker) just picked it up. Joe ended up getting it (after Dargan got hit by a Utah player and dropped it). Big play, changed the game."

Walker ran with some blockers to the other end zone, and his 100-yard fumble return for a touchdown was confirmed by an official review.

"When I saw the ref throw the bean bags (indicating spot where ball was dropped) ... I thought it was live," Walker said. He had one thought as he ran downfield: "Score." His thought after he scored? "It got very quiet."

Clay, who had 179 yards on seven kickoff returns and five catches for 152 yards, knew he had made a huge, momentum-killing mistake — the kind many teams wouldn't come back from.

"I take full responsibility for what happened tonight," he said. "I will take the criticism and the blame. It was just one of those things. I got excited and let the moment just get away from me."

Utah would have been ahead 14-0 with a good defense and a great crowd. Yes, the Ducks could have still rallied, but it was a momentum-changing event, and Utah was lucky to be down only 24-10 at halftime.

Utah rallied behind running back Devontae Booker and QB Wilson, who replaced injured Kendal Thompson — who led a Utah scoring drive in the first quarter. Wilson went 18 of 28 for 297 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw his first two interceptions of the season. Booker was held to 65 yards on 18 carries, but he caught eight passes for 110 yards and a touchdown.

Wilson threw a 27-yard TD pass to Booker and, after a Schneider field goal, a 13-yard TD pass to tight end Westlee Tonga, which narrowed Oregon's lead to 30-27 with 11:48 left in the game.

But the Ducks drove downfield and delivered in the clutch. Royce Freeman rushed for 21 yards, Devon Allen caught a 28-yard pass and Freeman rushed for another 13 yards. Stanford got whistled for pass interference, Grasu suffered his injury and Oregon got called for an illegal formation penalty (Utah declined). But, on second-and-25, Mariota hit Stanford for the pivotal 34-yard TD pass.

"Played one play at a time and executed," Helfrich said.

The coach also said he thought the Ducks played "cleanly" on Saturday, although the penalties didn't help, and Allen fumbled on his play but the Ducks recovered the ball.

The Utes moved into UO territory, but stalled at the Oregon 31. Andy Phillips missed a 48-yard field goal attempt. The Ducks then drove 69 yards in nine plays to basically put away the game, with Mariota scoring on a 1-yard TD run around right end. Brown was injured on the play, which made it 44-27 with 4:51 left. After an interception by Oregon cornerback Troy Hill, the Ducks topped 50 points with Royce Freeman's 11-yard TD run.

"Our team is always good at fighting back and never giving in," Utah's Wilson said. "We made a push late, but just couldn't get the job done."

The Ducks finished with 508 yards offense — 269 on the ground, including Freeman adding 99 yards on 15 carries.

"Just a gutty, gutty win," Helfrich said. "Huge turn of events with the fumble going into the end zone. ... Not a garden variety 51-27 win.

"We were in for a dogfight, no bones about it. It's one you have to gut it out. Just really, really proud of our effort."

Helfrich was impressed how the Ducks responded to the Grasu and Brown injuries.

"Like a bunch of guys who care about each other and battle for each other," he said.

Added Utah coach Kyle Whittingham: "Oregon is a great football team. The Oregon Ducks may be one of the best teams in the nation. They have a bunch of playmakers and probably the best quarterback in college football."