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No. 23 Utah clinches South in 38-7 rout of No. 3 Oregon; Thomas breaks TD record


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Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — You could say Saturday night's performance was two years in the making.

After being embarrassed on a national stage in the Pac-12 Championship game against Oregon in 2019, pushing the Utes out of a spot in the College Football Playoff, Utah remembered that feeling.

And with the roles reversed Saturday, with No. 3 Oregon in the drivers' seat for a playoff bid, it was time for the Utes to play spoiler to the Ducks.

"It was definitely on our minds," linebacker Devin Lloyd said. "But this is a completely different team than the 2019 team. Obviously, it still hurts; we still have that nasty taste in our mouths, but we were completely confident in this game and going into this game, and we understand that it was in a past."

That pent-up frustration, or whatever was left of it for some of the remaining players, from that December night was let out in one half of play against Oregon in front of a sold out and electric Rice-Eccles Stadium — again, on the national stage on a primetime broadcast on ABC.

Utah was the dominant team and controlled a 28-0 first half performance en route to a 38-7 victory over the visiting Ducks, who had no answer to the level of play Utah brought to the field.

The proverbial nail in the coffin came with 11 seconds left in the first half when Oregon (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) tried to run out the clock on third down. But Utah (8-3, 7-1 Pac-12) head coach Kyle Whittingham called a timeout to force the Ducks to punt, and Britain Covey's name was called.

"I've told coach Whitt before, if a team's trying to run out the clock at the end of the half and we have some timeouts, call them so that we can get a shot," Covey said. "We had 11 seconds left and a couple of guys on the sideline came up to me and they said, 'You're not down.' And so I went back there, looked at the north end zone, and I just went like what are we gonna do?"

What Covey did was return the punt 78 yards for a score as time expired to take a four-touchdown lead over the higher-seeded Ducks, who were left shell shocked.

"I wouldn't have had that if it weren't for Micah Bernard's blocks, Solomon Enis' block, Kamo'i Latu had two blocks, Connor O'Toole turns around and goes for the punter instead of coming backwards," Covey said. "So it's just like practice, it's not me; it's that unit. That unit is special and it's because we believe in what we can do."

Whittingham credited the final two touchdowns of the opening half as the biggest momentum drivers in the game and was something that put Oregon in a "tough situation." But the strategy to kick to Covey was not something Whittingham was expecting or would have done had he been on the opposite side of the field, he said.

"Well, the alternative is kick it out of bounds, I guess," Whittingham said. "But yeah, Covey, he's a dangerous guy, and I know I'd think twice about kicking to him, but that was their strategy."

Utah cliched the Pac-12 South division title with a game left to play in the regular season, and Whittingham became the all-time winningest head coach in Utah program history with the win, topping Ike Armstrong's previous record of 141 wins. It's an honor Whittingham credits most to the players and coaches he's been able to be around in his 17 years as head coach.

"That's a lot of years, a lot of hard work, and a lot goes into that," Whittingham said. "But as a football coach, it's different than some other sports — some other sports you can pretty much do it all as the head coach, but in football you cannot possibly. You've got to surround yourself with great people; and fortunately we've been able to do that through the last 17 years."

Not to be lost in the historic night was the hat trick performance by running back Tavion Thomas, who had his third straight such performance in four games (he was held in the Arizona game last week). He also broke the all-time single-season record at Utah with 17 total rushing touchdowns on the season.

"I just tried to go in the game just to play for my brothers," Thomas said. "And a big special part of me, my mom was here today, so I feel like she played a big role in this too for me."

Thomas finished the night with three rushing touchdowns and 94 rushing yards to pace the Utes to a victory. He breaks the record previously held by all-time leading rusher Zack Moss (2019) and John White (2011), who both finished with 15 rushing touchdowns in a season.

For a majority of the night, Utah put on a clinic in the trenches, winning on both sides of the ball against a traditionally physical Oregon team.

"We're both teams who pride ourselves on running the ball, being physical at the line of scrimmage, and so it was a battle of the trenches," Lloyd said. "We emphasized that all week; we kind of preached whoever wins the trenches is most likely gonna win the game."

As a result, Utah had its way against Oregon on third downs and converted on 11 of 14 third-down situations to extend drives. Quarterback Cam Rising picked up back-to-back first downs on third-down runs to set the tone early for the Utes.

Rising threw for 178 yards on 10-of-18 passing, and added a 1-yard rushing touchdown in the second quarter that gave the Utes a 14-0 lead.

"Extremely proud of our guys, obviously," Whittingham said. "From start to finish, excellent execution, physicality, they just weren't going to be denied tonight. It started with a great week of practice; they had the right mindset, absolutely, and it was great to see them go out and perform the way they did — just a great game for us."

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