After their second bye week, Oregon St. returns to action this week, and its an early one, Thursday night against 20th ranked Utah at Reser.
Last year, the Beavers and the Utes played one of the best games of the year, with Oregon St. winning 51-48 in overtime, at midnight, and after 4 hours, when Sean Mannion got a pass to clear a Utah defender's finger tips by a fraction of an inch, and to Brandin Cooks, waiting in the end zone. This after the Beavers had converted a 4th and 9, and went on to the score that sent the game into overtime.
It turned out to also be a bowl game deciding minute, as Oregon St. would reach the Hawaii bowl with a 6-6 record, while Utah wound up at 5-7 for the second consecutive season, and out of the bowls by 1 game.
Cooks is gone off to the NFL, but Mannion is back, and the Utes are off to an even better start. Both teams come in with 4-1 records, and are 1-1 in the Pac-12.
We got with Shane Roberts down at BlockU, BuildingTheDam's brother SBN website that covers Utah to get an update and scouting report on the Utes.
BTD: Coach Whittingham has announced that the starting quarterback decision will become known uncertainty about whether the best choice is Travis Wilson or Kendal Thompson, or is Whittingham playing this for more than its worth?
BlockU: Coach Whitt is a pretty straight forward coach, and his mentality with naming the starting quarterback is simple. Why name the starter publicly when you don't have to? While people may ‘know' who the starter is going to be, it won't be a certainty until they run out for that opening snap against Oregon State.
BTD: Neither Wilson nor Thompson has played poorly, but neither has exactly lit it up either. What is each player's greatest strength, and what is their greatest challenge?
BlockU: Wilson has a great arm and can chuck it down the field with the best of him. The thing that will him into trouble is the fact he likes to take gambles and has a tendency to either turn the ball over, or risk injury. He had a bit of happy feet against UCLA early, thus helping him get pulled for Thompson.
Thompson is an electric runner, and when combined with Devontae Booker in the backfield, is a formidable running duo. He's fast and elusive, and the ultimate read/option QB in the run game. His challenge is throwing the ball consistently, thus far anyway. He has a long motion - a la Tim Tebow - and hasn't shown the consistent ability to throw downfield, not yet anyway.
BTD: Traveling through Utah twice last week going to Boulder and back, we got to hear a lot from the media analysts in Salt Lake City (and Denver), and the consensus seemed to be that the Utes need to start Wilson, and then plan to also play Thompson in a meaningful way. And their reasoning, keeping Wilson engaged and also ensuring one of them is serviceable in the event of an injury, seemed solid. Where do you stand on the issue?
BlockU: Right now the opinion around the program, media/fan wise, is that Thompson will get the start against OSU. I think it's very valuable to have a second QB ready to go if/when called upon, but only if the situation allows it - such as a comfortable win. I'm all about riding the hot hand, and if they're being productive, keep them in. Thompson has brought a spark to this offense, and has the ability to keep the chains moving, Wilson was struggling with that - although his weapons weren't helping him much. If a QB is rolling and in rhythm, don't interrupt it.
BTD: Is it possible this is a distraction to the team? Or does pulling out a win at UCLA trump that, at least until there's a loss?
BlockU: I don't think this is a distraction at all. Coach Whitt has always been about the best 11 will be on the field, and if you're not producing you'll be replaced with someone that will. The fact is Utah has a lot of talent at QB right now, and if someone can't consistently keep the ball moving, they're benched. This isn't a quarter-to-quarter type of thing, but if you have multiple games of poor performance, you'll be replaced.
BTD: Somewhat lost in the shuffle is the job Devontae Booker is doing this season, both rushing and catching passes. How is Utah using him, and what is his most challenging characteristic for opposing defenses?
BlockU: Frankly, Utah hasn't used him enough. If they would have leaned on him more against Washington State, Utah likely pulls away and closes that game out. Booker is a special back, reminds me a little bit of Kadeem Carrey from Arizona. He's a between the tackles kind of back, but he's also one cut and gone, just see the long touchdown run against Washington State. He's a bruiser and won't go down easily, see his touchdown against UCLA. The Utes haven't done much special with him overall, outside of a couple screen passes and read option plays. Now with the threat of Thompson (likely) in the backfield with him, people won't be able to key on Booker alone.
BTD: What is Bubba Poole's status?
BlockU: The Poole situation is interesting, because he's played well this year, he's just competing with a big time running back like Devontae Booker. I'd like to see him in the backfield a little bit more with Booker. Poole is a great pass catcher, and also a really good pass blocker. It'll be interesting if he finds his way back on the field going forward.
BTD: The Utah defense has been up to usual Whittingham standards. What will the Utes do differently schematically to try to slow down Oregon St. quarterback Sean Mannion, who was quite effective against them last year?
BlockU: First and foremost, Utah will bring pressure. The Utes are the best in the country at sacking the QB, and also is at the top in tackles for loss. Utah didn't blitz Mannion enough last year, and I expect that to be different this year. Utah's secondary is much improved, so it's all about getting to Mannion and making him force throws and make mistakes.
BTD: Utah has another great kick returner in Kaelin Clay. Blazing speed and tremendous talent certainly helps, but what is Coach Whittingham doing with the return teams that makes the Utes so strong in this area?
BlockU: Coach Whitt has sectioned off the special teams and given each coach responsibilities. It appears to me that allows for much more focus and dedication to each unit, which allows for better attention to detail and execution.
BTD: Utah also has a great kicker in Andy Phillips and a very effective punter in Tom Hackett. Do the Utes game plan differently than they might otherwise, banking on great special teams play?
BlockU: Absolutely Utah game plans differently with these two guys at their disposal. Offensively, once Utah gets to about the 30-yard line, you can almost chalk up 3 points automatically because of Andy Phillips. And in a close game, like the UCLA one, that turns out to be a huge difference maker. As for Hackett, Utah isn't scared to play the field position game defensively. Hackett has a knack for downing the ball within the 5 yard line. When you give Utah's defense a 90+ yard field to defend, I like their chances. That makes for less gambling offensively and playing the game smart.
BTD: After missing a bowl by a single game 2 years in a row, there were rumblings about Coach Whittingham being on the hot seat. Has the temperature been turned down a bit now tha the Utes are a ranked team again?
BlockU: I think it depends who you talk to. There are some fans out there that have Coach Whittingham on his way out, almost no matter what. For some, it's bowl or bust. For others, like myself, it's a let him continue building the program. Utah has made strides each year, and the talent is starting to stack up. Coach Whitt, like Mike Reilly up in Corvallis, does it the right way, and is the right guy for the job.
BTD: Utah is considered around the conference to be a very disciplined team, and systematically, a sound team, as well as a very physical team to go up against. Even Bruins Nation, one of the biggest critics of coaching everywhere, has noted these positive traits. How did the program find the patience to persevere through injuries and a couple of difficult years?
BlockU: Defensively, there has been patience because that's Coach Whittingham's background. Last year was a tough year pass defense wise because of a ton of young guys playing, but now those guys are experience and getting better. Offensivley, there hasn't been a lot of patience. Six offensive coordinators in six years show you that. Between that and all the injuries, specifically at QB, it's been a tough go for Utah on the offensive side of the ball. Now the Utes have seven scholarship QBs on roster, with some major talent back there. The key is for one or more of those guys to step up and take command, and once Utah has consistency behind center, look out.
BTD: One of Coach Whittingham's most recent moves was to bring Dave Christensen on as Offensive Coordinator, which meant re-assigning Dennis Erickson as well. How is that working out? What has made what seemed like a risky move work as well as it seems to have?
BlockU: It's working out well thus far. Coach Erickson has done a great job with the running backs, but most importantly, he's tapped the fertile recruiting state of Florida for the Utes. Utah pulled in 4 kids from Florida this last class, and has some more this coming class. The amount of offensive knowledge that the staff has between Erickson and Christensen is great. I truly expect it to start paying off when they have more than a season together, and here's to hoping that Erickson has enough in his tank for another couple of seasons.
BTD: Utah football appears to be trending up, and basketball has also made great strides. It took a few rough years after moving up in competition to the Pac-12, but are things falling in place to sustain the trend, and the Utes as competitive and contenders on a consistent basis?
BlockU: Football has always been close while in the Pac-12, they've just had to build depth, and that's now coming. As for basketball, Utah was at the bottom in almost every way. Coach Kryskowiak had to build this program from scratch, which is sad, since this is one of the best, and tradition rich basketball programs in the west. Now he's got it rolling, and after one of the best recruiting classes in the Pac-12 this last year, Utah is now in a position to possibly win the conference, which was laughable a few years ago. Utah's spent a ton of money on facilities for both football, which opened last year, and basketball, which broke ground this past spring.
Thanks, Shane! Great insights into what should be a great game; Oregon St. and Utah are building quite a rivalry around what's become a running series of very competitive games!