Oregon St. meets Utah Thursday night, in the latest renewal of what has developed into a very competitive and entertaining rivaly in recent years. The Utes come in ranked 20th in the country, but are only 2 1/2 point favorites, an indication that the independent expectations are for a very competitive contest.
Head coaches Mike Riley and Kyle Whittingham seem to be as good a matchup as their teams have been for each other, and the result has been some hard hitting old-style football, with a dose of upscale action thrown in for good measure.
Last year, the Beavers got their first win in Salt Lake City in a long time, since 1968, but it took a completion pass from Sean Mannion that cleared a Utah defender's reach by a fraction of an inch on its way to waiting Brandin Cooks to pull out the 51-48 victory in overtime, in a game that though early in September, wound up deciding which team went to a bowl game, and which one fell 1 win short.
This year, both teams come in 4-1, and 1-1 in the Pac-12, and off close road wins before both teams took a bye week. The Utes edged UCLA 30-28 in the Rose Bowl, surviving 2 attempts at a game winning field goal by the Bruins at and after time had run out on the game. The Beavers rebuffed the Buffs 36-31 in Boulder, suppressing a Colorado rally after having taken a 2 touchdown lead in the 4th quarter.
Everything points to that close contest everyone is anticipating.
One of the reasons Oregon St. won was Sean Mannion had a great game, and one of the reasons that happened was that the Utah defense didn't get enough pressure on Mannion often enough. Some other games could have gone differently with a little more pressure on opposing quarterbacks as well, so the Utes went to work on their defense, and now they come into Reser leading the entire country in quarterback sacks.
Getting to play UCLA helped with that, but the fact is the Ute defense, led by Nate Orchard, who leads the nation in sacks per game, is typical Whittingham, tough against both the pass and the run. And they even have another large Lotulelei.
Beaver Believer will be along to note that running the ball will be a key to the game (as always), and that's true, but its part of a larger picture that is how the Oregon St. offensive line does against the Utah defensive front.
I don't discount the challenges that the Beaver defense will face, both from the dangerous Devontae Booker, and whomever is at quarterback, be it Travis Wilson, who had a huge game against Oregon St. last year, or transfer Kendall Thompson (NO mobile quarterback should EVER be underestimated against the Beaver Banker defense).
But Wilson has been inconsistent, and Thompson, though efficient, hasn't been overwhelming.
And the Beaver defense has consistently played well enough to put OSU in position to win. Even with Jalen Grimble out, there's enough depth to reshuffle the defensive line to do so again against Utah.
Oregon St. also has the kickoff capability in Trevor Wilson and the punting of Keith Kostol, augmented with good coverage, to keep Kaelin Clay from becoming the story of the game.
It will come down first and foremost to whether the Oregon St. offensive line can protect Mannion. But it will also matter whether they can do so without an undue amount of blocking help by TEs Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith, who Mannion needs to be throwing to on a regular basis.
And since the Beavers have had trouble getting their pass game going in the deep middle of the field with the WRs, the TEs become ever more important in this area, one they won't be in if they have to spend most of the night helping block for Mannion.
It will also matter whether the Oregon St. o-line can protect Mannion without resorting to such narrow gaps that it effectively shuts down the running lanes for Storm Woods, who I'm sure would love to have a big game, after getting literally knocked out last year by the Utes, and Terron Ward.
To that end, Coach Riley has been looking in practice at flipping the tackles side for side, putting the more agile Sean Harlow on the left side, to match up with Orchard (who wreaked havoc on UCLA's left tackle), and moving Gavin Andrews, who twisted an ankle against Colorado, on the right side.
Last year, the Utah game was one of the keys to not only a strong start to the season, but to the mantra of trusting Sean to deliver. This year, Sean has to have a chance to deliver what we believe he can again.
Beaver Believer Believes The Keys To The Game Are:
1. Do not allow the qb to run. Either of Utah's quarterbacks are able to run and it has been an Achilles Heel of OSU for as long as Banker has been defensive coordinator. Oregon State needs to stay disciplined and in their rush lanes, not getting overzealous and trying to win the game on their own. It is a common issue, the Beavers often get going way too far upfield and that leaves the field wide open for opponents. The Beavers need to keep their positions, similar to how Arizona pressured Oregon.
2. Protect Mannion. The offensive line needs to stand up against a fierce Utah front, and give Mannion enough time to find a receiver. He should be able to find receivers, or tight ends for that matter with enough time. It will be a tall order, especially with Nate Orchard ready to beat the stuffing out of Mannion. The offensive line has been up and down all year, but they will need to protect Mannion for at least a couple drives.
3. Keep a quick passing attack. The Beavers sometimes get too interested in deep passes, they are much better when Mannion is just quickly going out and making reads and getting the ball out quick. The running game clearly needs to stay involved, and they keep the run/pass count close if not skewed towards running.
The Beavers do not match up that well with Utah right now. Things were a little different before the rash of injuries at defensive tackle, which Colorado took advantage of in the last game. Utah has a very good running attack right now, and with the threat of a mobile qb the Utes look like they are in good shape.
On offense OSU has had troubles with pass protection for long stretches of games, and the Utah defense has 28 sacks in 5 games. That seems like a recipe for a disaster, although with the Beavers at home they should still put up a fight. 26-20 Utah.
It says a lot about the Beavers' upcoming schedule that Thursday's game against the Utes is one of the more winnable games left. Utah's only loss was a weird game against the Cougs (having a weird game against the Cougs is apparently a requirement for teams this season), and last week they beat the #8 Bruins.
The Utes have 2 dangerous quarterbacks, one very talented running back, and a ferocious defensive line. With that said, they are a bit untested and we haven't seen them face any great team outside of UCLA, and any good team outside of WSU. However they can't control the opponent, and their wins over the soft non-conference schedule have been blowouts, which is the reason they're feared and considered a top 20 team.
The first real X-factor I'd like to touch on is special teams, and, more specifically, Oregon State's coverage on kicks and punts. Utah's Kaelin Clay leads the nation in return touchdowns with 4, and overall the Utes rank top 10 in both average kickoff and punt return yardage. OSU, meanwhile, has been mediocre in limiting opponent's punt yardage, ranking 71st in the country. If this game ends up defensive, which it easily could if rain and the defenses show up, a big punt return that flips the field could be a game-changer.
You've probably heard more about the other stat Utah excels in, leading the nation in total sacks despite having already sat through 2 bye weeks. This is incredibly problematic for the Beavers' constantly shuffling (and, unfortunately rarely pass-blocking) offensive line. If the Utes get pressure on the first few Oregon State drives, the Beavs could be forced to keep tight ends and running backs in coverage, a luxury they can't really afford considering the situation at wide receiver. Hopefully a good run game and miraculously improved pass protection lead to the Beavers being able to keep a variety of plays on offense, and we don't see a repeat of the USC game.
As for the Beavers on defense, they'll be challenged, and certainly won't get a shutout, but I doubt the defense will be to blame if Oregon State loses this game. 2 quarterbacks is better than 1, but neither of the Ute QB's are elite. I think the Utes running game is good, but not nearly as good as their stats say. Of their FBS opponents, only Michigan ranks above 70th in defending the run. Again, I don't expect Utah to be completely bottled up by any stretch of the imagination, but I doubt they completely dominate the Oregon State defense.
Unfortunately, I don't think the Beavers have the offensive talent on the outside to pull out a win against Utah. It'll be close, though, let's go with a 31-27 Ute win.
Wow, these bye weeks just kill me with trying to get into the flow of Oregon State football! Throw in a Thursday night game and what can I really say about this all besides dang it will be nice to get back to it.
And getting back to it is going to be key for the Beavers in this big time match up against a very good Utah team. When we last saw both teams the Beavs were struggling to hold onto a win over the pesky as heck Colorado passing attack and Utah was upsetting what I think is a bit of an overrated UCLA team (but a huge and important win for the Utes nonetheless!).
Where is this game going?
Sean Mannion and His Offensive Line = This is the key match up in this game. Utah proved against a poor Bruins offensive line that their defense can be formidable and win games. I don't think honestly the Beavs line is quite as porous as the UCLA line, but it is still very much a concern for this Oregon State offense. We need to see Mannion given time to pick his targets, and we need to see the passing attack spread the field to take the Utah upfront defense out of the game. Utah is going to be ready for Sean this year after what he did to them last time, he needs for the line and his receivers to help take the pressure off him.
The Rushing Attack and Offensive Line = This is another huge part of the game. I doubt we shall see a passing attack like we saw last year in this match up, for I think the Beavs will be keen on getting Storm Woods and Terron Ward some yards. I believe that the RBs for Oregon State are a bit under-achieving in terms of stats and are a better running attack than they come across on paper. That said if they can't get things going, and it is up to Mannion and the line to protect him all the time, I feel this will fall into the Utes favor.
Oregon State's Defense = Hoping they are healthy and ready to come out aggressive and fired up after the break. There could be some holes here and there with the defensive front against a possible tandem attack of QBs, one of which can run the ball quite well. I though believe in the defense this year to handle either QB (or both QBs), for the defense has shown a strong central core with the LBs and a dynamic secondary. They seem to have more speed, more aggressiveness, and more mental smarts than we have seen for a little while for the Beavs. But at the same time I do think the front big guys have not lived up fully to their potential and I think they will be another important OSU key to this game against whoever they are facing at QB for Utah.
Utah Football Flexing Some Muscle in the Pac Finally = This is a well coached program and one that seems to have found some team spark and cohesion finally in their "new" conference. It was a struggle last year to put the Utes away and it is not going to be any easier this season for Oregon State. If I had to actually pick my Pac-12 "dark horse" team it would be Utah. The Beavs have to be ready for a battle that will take up a full 60 minutes of play.
This should be a good game, but you know I thought that coming out of the other bye too and look where that got me? A world of LA pain is where. I really don't expect that type of flat performance to the happen this time around for I think the Beavs really do match up well with Utah even with the possible issues the Utes seem ready to hand OSU. As such I think if the Beavs are prepared and mentally sharp enough they can go toe-to-toe/head-to-head with Utah. I don't know where this game will be going though in terms of scoring for I could see multiple different scenarios playing out: a close low scoring defensive deal, higher scoring offensive shoot out (but don't know if it will go quite to where it went last time), or somewhere in the middle? I just really don't see the game going totally in the favor of one or the other in this one, it should be a tight game. Going 5 and 1 for Oregon State at this stage of the season and Pac-12 North race would be huge. Beating a very good Utah team will add to this even more.