Utah's Rice-Eccles Stadium has been a tough venue for Oregon State, with the Utes claiming the win the last 3 times the Beavers have ventured there. A frustrating 31-28 loss a week after the Beavers had handed USC their only loss of the season in 2008 took some of the luster off that win, and probably sent Oregon St. to the Sun Bowl instead of the Holiday Bowl. Two years ago, in Utah's first season in the Pac-12, the Utes ran all over the Beavers in a 27-8 blackout win.
This year's game is circled in red on both teams' schedules as a near "Must Win" game, because its one of those "up for grabs games" that could not only reasonably go either way, it could also serve as a springboard or start a tailspin. Both teams will likely look back at the end of the season at this game as one of the critical points in the season, one way or the other.
Many around the Oregon St. program are seemingly making the leap from this being a very big game for both teams to a make or break game for the Beavers. That to me is a stretch, and I don't sense those IN the program see it that way either, but it's hard to ignore the smallish crowd that turned out in perfect weather conditions, where there were no excuses, for the Hawaii game. If this game gets away, it could become infectious, with many reiterating the message.
As such, it may be approaching make or break status in a self-fulfilling way, especially if the apparent reasons the Beavers lost, should that eventuate, are the problems that manifested themselves in the first games, problems containing Travis Wilson, and another ineffective rushing game.
Dennis Erickson, Utah's co-Offensive Coordinator, is an interesting element as well, popular with Beaver Nation yet perfectly capable and willing to spoil Oregon St.'s evening. Coupled with Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham's defensive mind, the possibility of Oregon St. getting out-coached, which Whittingham has done multiple times before without Erickson's help, is also a real possibility, and one that won't play well back home if it happens a third time down there.
It adds up to the need for a tremendous amount of discipline, and precise execution on both sides of the ball, for the Beavers to pull out a win that could have as exaggerated a positive effect as the potential negative outcome described above.
It appears the players grasp that, based on what they have said and done this week, which too often in the last few years hasn't been the case. We'll see if they can carry through on that tonight.
My sense is that tonight we see the real measure of Sean Mannion's growth and maturity. It's also my sense that Beaver Nation will be impressed with it.
Beaver Believer's Keys To The Game:
1) Stay in rush lanes! The Beavers have done an awful job of containment in the first two games of the season and it is a large reason why the defense has been so porous. That and the coverage. And the tackling. Ahem. But one more easily corrected mistakes is to choose to stay in the pass rushing lanes, crushing the pocket instead of trying to get around the outside. The whole system is based more on getting after pocket passers, but mobile quarterbacks require a different approach.
2) Improve the coverage. Watching the secondary play this year has been a nightmare. It looks like Steven Nelson might have started to figure it out towards the end of the game against Hawaii, but as a unit they have been abysmal. The picture of the safeties getting burned deep for touchdowns is still ingrained in my mind. Hawaii left a lot of chances out on the field last week, there were several drops that would have been first downs, poor throws on open receivers. The success of the defense was less about good plays and more about not playing as poorly as Hawaii did. The secondary did not impress last week, but against a conference opponent they need to show up. The Beavs will not stand a chance unless the defensive backs are actually able to stick with their man.
3) Get the ball to Brandin Cooks. Cooks has been the best player this far for the Beavs, and they really need to get him the ball as much as possible. Wide receiver screens, fly sweeps, and obviously in the passing game. If the Beavs let him get into space he will create something, as he has been nothing short of stupendous thus far in the season. Normally the run game would be used to create room for the pass, but in the Beavs case, Brandin Cooks is needed to create room for the rest of the offense.
With the offensive line being one injury away from hitting the bottom of the barrel, and the two previous uninspiring showings by the defense, I have trouble seeing this as a Beaver victory. Utah has actually played quite well, and with the addition of Dennis Erickson and the growth of Travis Wilson, not to mention the poor matchup against a spread offense, I think the game ends up being a shootout in favor of Utah. 41-34 Utah.
I'll start off by saying that I don't buy the whole "this game will make or break each team's season" school of thought. If we aren't letting an FCS loss define the year, a road loss against Utah shouldn't either.
I've been very impressed with the Utes thus far. Utah State is a solid team with an electric quarterback, and putting 70 points on anyone is not easy to do.
I think the key to this one will be jumping out to a good start. That won't exactly take the crowd out of it, but falling behind 10-0 or 14-0 will be too much to overcome against a team with momentum and a raucous crowd behind them.
Playing against a team with a great offense like Utah's, and boosted by the return of DJ Alexander, the defense should step up and turn in it's best performance of the young season. If they give up 24, 28 points, I'd consider that a success. Regardless, it would be a bit foolish to pick a Beaver win. I'll take Utah by four.
It's time for some answers.
After rolling through Hawaii, as expected, a matchup in Salt Lake against Utah is a much-needed test to see where the Beavers stand. Before the season, this is a game many predicted to be an Oregon State loss. Of course, that was before Oregon State collapsed and Utah won a tight game against the dangerous Utah State, before we saw the ineptitude of the Beavers' defense and the progression of Travis Wilson. Needless to say, not many are picking the Beavs in this one, and for good reason.
It's hard to see any hope for this one considering Wilson's ability and willingness to run is much improved from last year, and we all know the Beavers' struggles with that. Luckily, it appears the only thing capable of slowing down Sean Mannion is Mannion himself, so watching the offense should once again be entertaining. However Oregon State desperately needs to get and show some semblance of a run game, or it won't be too long before the offense is facing dime coverage the whole game.
Oregon State also could use some more productivity out of the return game, and Jovan Stevenson won't play the first half, and may not return kicks in the second. Hopefully his replacement Ryan Murphy can provide a spark. So far, everything from the decision making to the blocking has been suspect on returns.
This isn't the first game the Beaver defense will be challenged, and it certainly won't be the last. Slowing down, not to mention stopping, the Utes offensive attack would be a big confidence booster and a sign of good things to come. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem likely that the team can do that.
Coming into this season this game seemed to loom large for the Beavs as the first big test of what looked to be a very winnable stretch of games. As it stands now the game has become even larger in terms of an indicator of how the season may end up, and as an important on-the-road conference opener.
Oregon State came off what I thought was a very solid win last week, albeit against a struggling Hawai'i team, but still it was an impressive enough bounce back from the season opening loss to Eastern Washington.
As such what are the burning questions for this game in Utah:
1. Defense? The defense is going to be under the microscope again for this game. They will be playing a team that's playing well, and a team with what looks to be a dynamic offense (50 points/game and 539 yards/game averages so far; and a balanced attack with 592 passing yards and 486 rushing yards over their first two games).
OSU's defense took some strides last week against Hawai'i, but there is a long way to go still on this side of the ball. With a solid performance against Utah the Beavs could go a long ways towards improving even more. See below about my questions about on-the-field leadership, but briefly here I would like to add I am wondering if any one on this side of the ball is ready to step up in this role (or is it going to be a team effort)?
2. Running game? Not sure I have much to add here this week. Yes the passing offense has been awesome so far and yes Woods is playing a huge part in this passing offense, but I still wonder about having more ball control options with a little stronger rush offense. I don't know with Mannion and the receiver corps that we need a lot here, but still would be nice against some of the upcoming teams to have a run game that can take time off the clock and help give the defense enough rest.
3. TO's? So far this season turnovers have not played any big part of the games, for either side (except for making the final score against Hawai'i look like a closer game than it was). Sooner or later this is going to change, and one has to think in a pressure filled third game of the season, and a conference game at that, that this is a game where turnovers could well play an important role. Of course the OSU-centric view here for me is if the defense is going to step up and produce some key takeaways.
4. I assume? Same as last week: NO MORE ASSUMPTIONS!
5. On-the-field leadership? To move the conversation away from the coaches for the moment, one thing Andy and I have been discussing lately has been the role of leadership found on this team. It looks very much like Mannion and Cooks have the offensive side of the ball covered. The OSU star QB and WR are nicely complementing each other, with a quiet and focused intensity found with Mannion, and a swagger and focused intensity found with Cooks.
But on the defensive side of things I have very much agreed with Andy that the loss of Poyer has seemed to have shown effects on the team's focus and intensity. But where will this leadership step up from? It seems logically that we need a LB, but with Doctor going out is there another player here? Maybe it will come from one of the veteran linemen upfront? I don't know, and think this is a huge question for an early test against a good and improved conference opponent at their place.
6. Utah? Okay, two what look on paper like solid Ws over Utah State and Weber State. 70 points on Weber State does bode ominous for a Beavers ‘D' that is trying to find itself. One could argue I guess it was just Weber State, but still an impressive taking care of early season business that OSU does not have the luxury to claim. As such I feel that this game is a classic "something has to give" game for both of these teams.
For example, the role of turnovers I talked about above. But also, is Utah as good as they seem so far? How good or bad is OSU really? Another thing about Utah is that this is the first game of a HUGE stretch for the Utes, which includes next week at BYU, followed by UCLA, and then Stanford. How does this OSU game fit in now? Is it going to be a message and motivation game for Utah going into this stretch of games? Will the Beavs be overlooked a bit here as maybe the easy win out of these next four games, against the team that lost to Eastern Washington? Again, it seems like the big question here revolves around something "has to give" for both teams in this game, and who will blink first, who will have the positive result, and who the negative?
In conclusion there is a part of me that is looking forward to this game, for totally excited to have such an important game early on. It has the feel of a game that could really help the Beavs establish their leadership and team identity.
At the same time I will be totally honest that this game has me incredibly nervous. The implications of a loss here this early on are now huge for the team that is currently sitting at 1 and 1. In the end what do I expect? I think generally I feel we could be in for a really good football game, and one that OSU has a good chance winning.