Oregon State heads to Salt Lake City today, for tomorrow's Halloween evening "Black-Out" game against 13th ranked Utah. It's also homecoming for Beavers' Head Coach Gary Andersen, who played and coached for the Utes, and 4 of Oregon State's assistants who have also coached at Utah previously.
Utah got off to a great start in the first half of the season, roaring to a #3 ranking in the nation, and a perfect 6-0 record, including handing Oregon their worst loss ever in Eugene. But then came last week's trip to the LA Coliseum, and a surprisingly one-sided 42-24 loss to USC. That the Trojans won wasn't totally a surprise; they were the favorite despite being unranked (the first time that's ever been the case against a team ranked as high as the Utes were this deep into any season), but the margin was a shock.
To get an update on what happened, and what Oregon State and Beaver Nation can expect this week, we got with Shane Roberts, who manages BlockU.com, our brother SB Nation blog that covers the Utes to get a scouting report.
And to see what the 'dam' has been thinking about leading into this game with Utah see BlockU's "Behind Enemy Lines: Previewing the Beavers with Building the Dam."
Hi, Shane! Great to talk with you again, and thanks for taking time to update us on the Utes.
I see you guys are going to unleash Zombies on us, as if Devontae Booker, Hunter Dimick, Jared Norris, and another Lotulelei, were not enough. But lets get into some more detail.
BTD: Utah is having a great season, and Oregon State is struggling, to the point in both cases where Saturday night's Blackout (the Beavers seem to be the Ute's favored target for this) should be a blowout. Yet there are still several intriguing story lines in a series that's consistently produced some of the closest and most competitive games of the season, and exceeded everyone's expectations as far as drama goes. The last 2 years' games went to overtime (and midnight) in SLC, and double overtime last year in Corvallis.
Utah, after rolling everyone in their way in the first half of the season, unexpectedly got rolled themselves in the LA Coliseum last week. This happens to everyone at some point, but it was still a sizable surprise this time. What happened? Was it just a case of the Trojan talent deciding to "Fight On"? Or was there something else, like an injury somewhere, or a matchup that was a big-mismatch?
BlockU: It was a combination of multiple things. First of all, Utah just did not play very well that night, and you can combine that with USC playing really well. USC played loose and relaxed, while Utah played a little bit uptight and couldn't rebound from a bad second quarter. Utah was missing one of their best linebackers, Jared Norris, and that no doubt had an impact on how Utah played defensively, even though Utah wasn't that bad on defense. One big factor from that game was that the offensive staff didn't give stud running back Devontae Booker the ball enough with only 16 carries, in my opinion. Overall, I just chalk it up to a bad night, specifically a bad quarter.
BTD: Travis Wilson did what Travis usually does, play lights out much of the time, but then have a real rough game at an inopportune time. Last week, it resulted in 4 interceptions, and that appears to have essentially decided the game. Sometimes these things have been a product of injuries, but not this time. What's your assessment of what happened, and will there be lingering effects?
BlockU: Travis Wilson is actually healthy right now, at least as far we know. As I previously mentioned, the lack of running game really hurt Travis. As long as the coaching staff gives Booker the ball more, and as long as Travis runs it himself a little bit more, I think the offense will be fine overall going forward.
BTD: What's the prevailing mood of the Utes? Though they still control their own path to the Pac-12 title, they also lost most if not all of their margin of error. Are they on a pretty even keel? Or looking to make a statement at Oregon State's expense?
BlockU: The mood of the Utes is actually really good. They know that they control their own destiny in the division, and that they still have a game lead on the rest of the South. This is a very senior laden team that won't allow them to get too high or get too low. I do believe Utah is looking to make a statement on Saturday, but it's more so to get back on track and to win another Pac-12 game.
Devontae Booker was a big problem for the Beavers last year. (Photo by Andy Wooldridge)
BTD: Will Coach Whittingham and OC Aaron Roderick (and our old friend Dennis Erickson) decide to run the Beavers into the ground with Devontae Booker? He did a pretty good job of that last season, 32 carries for a career high 229 yards, but though he had 20 touches for 111 yards against USC, only 62 came on the ground, his third lowest total ever. Will this be an exercise in reestablishing him, or will it be more about getting Travis Wilson sharp again?
BlockU: Booker will be featured heavily Saturday night, because Utah's offense runs a lot smoother when Booker is the primary option. Establishing Booker helps Travis Wilson out immensely, and opens up the field for him. So look for a lot of Booker early, and a lot of play action off of that.
BTD: The other obvious story line is the return of Gary Andersen and Kalani Sitake to Salt Lake City. What will the reception be? Are there any hard feelings? Or is everybody really good?
BlockU: I think there will be some stupid fans that boo, there always are. But I think a lot of fans, myself included, still love both Coach A and Kalani and will welcome them back warmly. They are both Utah guys, especially Coach Andersen, since he played at Utah, coached at Utah, and has deep roots with the school. Now when the ball kicks off, all that is over and it's time to kick their butts.
BTD: Related to that, there was a lot of friction between Coach Whittingham and Utes Athletic Director Chris Hill after last season, and as we understand it, one of the points of contention was compensation for the assistant coaches. Utah recovered nicely with the hiring of John Pease as defensive coordinator, but has the rift been smoothed over, or is it still there, just under the surface? Could it lead to the much speculated possibility of Whitt going to USC? Or did Clay Helton take care of that himself last Saturday?
BlockU: I think that was a little overblown. It's as simple as management versus employee. Dr. Chris Hill has to run the entire athletic department, and is trying to make wise long term decisions. While Coach Whitt is wanting as much support for his football program. I think most of that has passed, and Coach Whitt is coaching himself into a nice new contract, I believe. As for him going to USC, I don't see that. Whitt is a Utah guy, and USC just isn't really a fit for him, you know, the whole Hollywood thing isn't his style. I think he retires a Utah man.
BTD: Britain Covey has burst onto the scene, consistently putting up huge numbers. What makes him so good as a freshman? What would be Oregon State's best bet for a strategy to slow him down? Especially given that both the Beavers' starting CBs are out this week.
BlockU: He's very quick and hard to tackle. Defenders just can't get a good angle on him to bring him down. He's also very smart, and very mature for his age. He played QB in high school, so he has a good feel for defenses and what they're trying to do. As for how to slow him down, I t think you have to have two guys on him, that's what Cal did and that eliminated Covey from the game pretty well. With that said, he's a dynamic punt returner, so probably best to kick away from him too.
BTD: Beyond Booker, Covey, and Wilson, who else need to be a priority for the Beavers?
BlockU: Kenneth Scott, because he's a lot of times Wilson's safety net. When Utah needs a first down through the air, they are going to throw it to #2 right at the sticks. Also watch out for Corey Butler-Byrd, Utah's corner back and part time receiver. They put him on the field to go deep, and that's what he did against Cal. So when you see Butler-Byrd on defense, watch for the deep ball.
BTD: The depth chart shows Jared Norris starting, but he's been banged up at times this season. Is he fully healthy? (Which could be a very bad thing for scrambling OSU QB Seth Collins, and a reason why Coach Andersen might play alternate QB Nick Mitchell more.)
BlockU: I don't think he'll be fully healthy for the Beavers, because that knee injury didn't look great against ASU. I expect him to play, but I'm not sure what percentage he is for the game. He and Gionni Paul make up a scary linebacker tandem, and are major playmakers for the Utes.
BTD: Speaking of Collins, who actually started at RB, not QB, last week against Colorado, and Mitchell, what does the dynamic of a quarterback who is a dynamic runner, and often a pass second option, and a pass a lot or hand off type quarterback, do to Utah's defensive game plan? Do the Utes make a lot of changes, either in personnel or formation, between run-likely downs and more-probable passing situations? Or do they stick with their base scheme, and adjust out of it?
BlockU: The Utes, traditionally a big 4-3 team, have been playing a lot more nickel the last couple of seasons, which is needed more in the Pac-12. If it's a passing situation, watch for #50 Pita Taumoepenu, he's a pass rush specialist, and just finds the QB. Other than that, Utah's pretty stout at all three levels, and don't need to change things much. Utah's secondary is as good as we've seen in a long time, Utah's d-line is always stout, and the linebackers, as I've mentioned previously, are playmakers. Watch Gionni Paul Saturday, the dude is an animal and is a blast to watch.
BTD: Finally, what's your prediction of how Halloween will unfold at Rice-Eccles?
BlockU: I think Utah comes out firing and takes it to the Beavs. Utah wants to rebound and get back on track, and I think Utah's defense wants to show Kalani Sitake what he left behind. You'll get plenty of Booker, with some play action to Covey, Scott and crew. And I expect Utah's defense to hound Oregon State all night long, so I think it could be a long night for Coach A's crew. I see Utah winning this game by about the score of 45-13.
Thanks again Shane! See you Saturday.
Check back with BlockU for all the last minute updates about the Utes up to game time.