Three fumble recoveries and an interception are usually enough to alter the outcome of a football game.
It wasn't the case, however, in Utah's 31-24 loss at Oregon. Winning the turnover battle didn't change the bottom line. It followed a season-long trend for the Utes, who defeated Utah State and San Jose State despite having fewer takeaways.
"That's an oddity. The first two ballgames of the year, we were in the minus category and win," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "And in this one we're in the plus category, and we don't win."
Utah's 4-2 advantage in turnover margin, though, did have an impact against the Ducks.
"As poorly as we played, that's one of the things that kept us in the game," Whittingham said. "If it had been 4-2 the other way, I don't think we would have had a chance to win."
The fact that Utah didn't prevail, however, overshadowed the final turnover margin.
"It's more fun at the end of the day knowing that you have a win under your belt," said senior safety Robert Johnson, who returned a fumble 28 yards for a touchdown and intercepted a pass in the end zone against Oregon. "Having the big plays — it was cool — but it felt like it wasn't right because the team didn't win."
The loss snapped the nation's longest active winning streak. Utah had won 16 consecutive games before the setback.
"I had some good plays, but I also had some bad plays as well," said Johnson, a preseason all-conference honoree. "I think some of the bad plays kind of override the good plays. I think that's why we lost the game."
Johnson's individual successes were secondary.
"That's how you want your whole team to be," Whittingham said. "That's the competitor in him coming out. The bottom line is the 'W' or the 'L.' That's really all that matters."
Utah's first setback since November 2007 put a damper on everything else.
"It was real bad," Johnson said. "But in the locker room, we kind of looked at it as a learning experience."
All teams are beatable, he added.
Even those, as it turned out, with decisive advantages in turnover margin.
Prior to the Oregon game, Utah's only takeaways on the season were single interceptions against Utah State (Justin Jones) and Utah State (Mike Wright).
The tally began to grow in the second quarter last Saturday when Justin Taplin-Ross pounced on a muffed punt return by Oregon.
In the third quarter, defensive lineman Kenape Eliapo recovered a fumble on the Ducks' 20-yard line. Just under 11 minutes later, Wright forced quarterback Jeremiah Masoli to lose the ball and Johnson scooped it up. He then ran it in for a score. Johnson had additional heroics midway through the fourth quarter when he intercepted an Oregon pass in the end zone.
"He delivered. He's a guy who has been doing that for going on three years now," Whittingham said. "He's been a big-play guy, and that's his m.o."
Johnson had four interceptions against ranked opponents last season, including two against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The others came in wins over TCU and BYU.
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