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Eugene, Ore.

The Ducks weren't the wounded ones on Saturday.

No, those were the Utes, playing without their starting quarterback at Autzen Stadium, where, under cold, cloudy November skies — and an even colder, cloudier pall of gloom — all things seemed to point to a difficult day for the visitors from Utah.

All things were right.

Some of that pall had to do with the status of a missing Travis Wilson, a situation made more alarming by a postgame characterization by Kyle Whittingham that "our thoughts and prayers are with him." I'm no doctor, but that sounded ominous, like something beyond a concussion. But that, Whittingham said, would be cleared up with more information on Monday.

The rest of the pall came from defeat — a four-game string of them now. The Utes went ahead and fell to Oregon, 44-21, and that result brought up tough questions in tough times for Whittingham: Is Utah football really progressing? Is it getting any better? Is it?

The last time the Utes played Oregon — in 2009, they lost, 31-24, in a game they had a chance to win, trailing late just 28-24. Since that time, Utah joined the Pac-12, supposedly has had stronger recruiting classes and now more seasoned coaching, and has made up exactly zero ground against the Ducks. Apparently, it's lost ground.

Whittingham claims the Utes are better than they were last year — and maybe they are — but he says the competition has gotten better, too. In the postgame, he reiterated, "I know we're a better football team overall. Today, the performance wouldn't indicate that. The wheels came off in the second half. The wheels come off for a lot of teams against [Oregon]."

That leads to another question: If the Utes are better, but the teams they play are even "more better," what difference does it make?

Not a lot.

Here's the hard truth: The Utes are falling behind, farther behind. Game by game, loss by loss, year by year. They're falling victim to the old saying: The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.

Ute progress, in relative terms, is a mirage.

They now are 1-6 in the Pac-12. And it's a real possibility that they will miss out for the second season in a row on a bowl game, which is hardly any kind of measure of good football. Some 70 percent of college football teams play in bowl games. But the Utes have to win out to join that less-than-exclusive club this time around.

They'll have to beat Washington State next week on the road — a place they almost never win in league play. They're 0-3 this year away from Rice-Eccles — and that makes them 3-9, all told, since getting into the Pac-12.

It was a tall order, what Utah faced against the Ducks, attempting to stumble out of that dark mess of a losing streak against not just one of the best teams in the league and the country, but an outfit that most recently had its purpose renewed with a defeat at Stanford.

The optimistic news: Utah beat Stanford.

The pessimistic news: Nobody knows now how on God's green earth that happened.

The Utes capitulated here for a lot of reasons. The one that bothered them more than any other was their inability to finish strong. After falling behind early, and climbing back to within 17-14 in the third quarter, they blew a gasket, then blew apart — allowing an 86-yard kickoff return by De'Anthony Thomas … and, then, a whole lot more. Four consecutive Oregon touchdowns sent Utah packing.

After the devastating return, Whittingham said it seemed as though his team could do something positive on neither side of the ball: "The play of the game was the kickoff return. We never recovered. … You've got to play a complete game."

The Utes tried to replicate some of what the Cardinal had pulled off against Oregon — trotting out some power football — but, ultimately, it failed.

The lead ballooned to 30 points with 12:09 left in the fourth quarter.

"At the end of the day, we're 1-6 in conference," said defensive lineman Trevor Reilly. "That's terrible. We've got to close out games. … We have not been able to step on people."

They have been stepped on — a lot.

GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

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