The eighth-ranked Oregon State Beavers will play their second straight opponent from the Beehive State when they entertain the Utah Utes on Saturday night at Reser Stadium in Corvallis.
Utah kicks off the second half of the season hoping to turn things around as the team has lost four of its first six games, including all three conference bouts. Last weekend, it was the UCLA Bruins that knocked off the Utes (21-14) and while the slow start to Pac-12 play is disheartening, Utah began its first year as a member of the league in 2011 0-4 before winning its final four, the first of which was a 27-8 victory over Oregon State.
The Beavers' No. 8 ranking in this week's AP poll is their highest since ending the 2000 season at No. 4. A win over Utah would give Oregon State its first 6-0 start since 1907, and would also make the team bowl eligible at the earliest time in school history. Furthermore, the last time the Beavers won their first three league games was back in 1968. Last week, OSU stepped out of conference to take down the BYU Cougars in Provo, 42-24. The team's path to a possible appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game features a slew of tough games as Washington, Arizona State, Stanford, California and bitter rival Oregon all remain on the docket.
Oregon State owns a 9-6-1 advantage in the all-time series with Utah, but the Utes have won four of the last five meetings.
Utah ranks last in the Pac-12 in total offense (302.7 ypg), with both the run (100.0 ypg) and pass (202.7 ypg) being equally ineffective at keeping opposing defenses honest. John White is the team's leading ground gainer, but he averages just 69 ypg and has found the end zone only once. As for the Utes' quarterbacks, three different guys have taken snaps this season, with Jon Hays throwing for 125.6 ypg with seven TDs against only one interception. Drew Anderson heads the receiving corps with 22 grabs for 233 yards and two TDs, although Kenneth Scott has taken three of his 10 receptions for scores. The Utes have committed just eight turnovers.
Last week against UCLA, it was Travis Wilson's turn to see what he could do with the offense, and he responded by completing 23-of-33 passes for 220 yards with no TDs and one pick. Anderson finished with nine grabs for 70 yards and a TD, that scoring strike coming from Hays on his only pass attempt of the game. The Utes were held to 75 net rushing yards, with White gaining 44 yards on 11 totes.
For the most part, the Utah defense has performed well this season as the unit currently ranks third in the conference with an average yield of only 350.7 ypg. The Utes rank fourth against both forms of attack, but they have come up with only two interceptions. Seven fumble recoveries has helped, and the team averages nearly eight TFL per outing. Trevor Reilly is the team's top tackler, making 35 stops from his linebacker spot, which includes 2.5 of Utah's 13 sacks.
The Bruins used a balanced offensive attack to hand the Utes their third straight loss as they tallied 171 rushing yards and another 183 through the air. Despite seven TFL, including a pair of sacks, the Utah defense allowed UCLA to converted 10-of-17 third-down opportunities. Brain Blechen was the Utes' leading tackler in the game with eight, of which six were unassisted.
Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham is trying to remain positive in spite of his team's recent lack of success.
"Obviously we came up short. The guys played hard again and this team has no shortage of effort or toughness. We've got a bunch of tough guys that fight for the full 60 minutes. However, we have to play smarter at times and have to be more productive."
Oregon State's bread and butter on offense is the pass (338.0 ypg), as QB Sean Mannion is the Pac-12's second-ranked passer after completing 63.3 percent of his throws for 1,358 yards, seven TDs and four interceptions. Unfortunately for the sophomore signal-caller, and perhaps the Beavers, he is sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury, leaving the controls to junior Cody Vaz.
Despite not taking a meaningful snap since 2010, Vaz played exceptionally well in last week's win at BYU, going 20-of-32 for 332 yards with three TDs and no interceptions. Brandin Cooks was the primary beneficiary of his new gunslinger's exploits, as he pulled down eight balls for 173 yards, although Markus Wheaton turned his five catches into 66 yards and a pair of scores. Storm Woods, who is OSU's leading rusher this season with 404 yards and three TDs, ran for 57 yards and a score, although the run game in general produced just 118 yards. Wheaton, who serves as the club's leading receiver with 41 grabs for 564 yards and six scores, added a rushing score on a 12-yard jaunt in the fourth quarter.
Mike Reilly, who recently became the all-time winningest coach in Oregon State history, had nothing but praise for Vaz.
"I don't think anybody in our locker room was particularly surprised Cody played well. I think they've had faith in him as a teammate for a long time. I knew this was going to be a hard venue to step into but I thought guys helped him out and made plays."
The Beavers held the Cougars to 81 net rushing yards last week, yielding a meager 2.5 yards per carry. BYU did air the ball out for 305 yards, but only scored one TD that way while suffering four sacks. Ryan Murphy and Michael Doctor both logged double digits in tackles with 11 and 10, respectively. and Scott Crichton had a pair of sacks. Jordan Poyner returned a fourth-quarter interception 49 yards for a TD to close the scoring for Oregon State.
Oregon State is giving up just 18.4 ppg, and its effort against the run (70.0 ypg) has it ranked first in the Pac-12 and fourth nationally. The Beavers have come up big on third down as well, yielding just a 27 percent success rate to their enemies. The team has 14 sacks, with Crichton credited with eight (fourth nationally). Murphy leads the way with 31 total tackles, and Poyner has five picks already (his 1.0 interceptions per game leads the nation).