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For every player who drops a ball short of the goal line, there's a player who sees that the play might be live.

On Saturday, it was Joe Walker. The junior linebacker saw an official drop a beanbag, presumably to mark the spot of a fumble. From there, it was gut instinct.

"I was just going to run it back," he said. "Just in case."

Some things that swung Oregon's way in the 51-27 victory were gift-wrapped, like Kaelin Clay's second-quarter fumble. Others were taken by more forceful means.

In a game of dramatic momentum shifts, Oregon had a fair share go against it: sacks, fumbles, devastating injuries. But the Ducks, ranked No. 4 in this week's College Football Playoff poll, seized on enough of Utah's mistakes to continue their national championship quest.

Clinching the Pac-12 North, or at least a portion of it, was but a side note, coach Mark Helfrich said afterward. The greatest victory was one of spirit: fighting out one of the most physical and mentally challenging battles the Ducks have had so far.

"Just really, really proud of our effort," Helfrich said. "We had a bunch of guys in and out of the lineup all over the place. Definitely not a garden-variety 51-27 win, but a big, big win for a lot of reasons."

This was Oregon's walk through the fire for three quarters. And it started out as poorly as the Ducks could begin.

After Marcus Mariota ran down to the red zone, he was sacked twice all the way out of field goal range. The Utes had a 7-0 lead throughout the first quarter, while Oregon mustered only 10 passing yards.

Helfrich said Utah's pressure forced the Ducks to cut down their routes, not take so many shots and press with the run. Mariota's legs were really the only weapon that worked all night, and got the offense out of a bunch of jams.

"Marcus is special, elite, great," Helfrich said, overflowing with superlatives. "He's really good at creating those open field situations, breaking the front line and getting those huge conversions."

In the second half, Utah went on a 17-3 run, scoring a touchdown with 11:48 in the fourth quarter to trim the Oregon lead to only three points. The current was flowing against the Ducks.

But the offense immediately responded: In only five plays spanning a minute and a half, Mariota completed a 34-yard pass to Dwayne Stanford. The score also came one play after his starting center, Hroniss Grasu, left the field with a right leg injury.

It was ugly. It was costly, with Grasu potentially out for a long time, and tight end Pharoah Brown having to be taken to a hospital for an apparent leg injury.

But Oregon survived, as championship contenders must. For all of Utah's anguish, there was grim satisfaction for the Ducks.

"We knew that coming in they were a very good defense, and we were going to have to grind some drives out," Mariota said. "Hats off to the guys in the locker room. Unbelievable will to get drives going and finish them."

Twitter: @kylegoon

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