Oregon State wasn't expected to do much this season ... Utah was. Instead, it's the Beavers who've turned into the surprise Pac-12 team of the year and the Utes, struggling to a 2-4 record, are certainly in the running for the most disappointing.
Utah, coming off a 21-14 loss to UCLA last week, rolls into Corvallis against the streaking, and undefeated, Oregon St. Beavers ... who've climbed to 8th nationally and are enjoying their best season of the Mike Riley era. It's an imposing game for a team that has yet to win on the road and finds itself on the verge of their second 0-4 conference start in as many years.
So, do the Utes have a chance Saturday?
That's a tough question to answer. I think we all realize that victory will only be attained if the defense shores up its problems and the offense can produce its best game of the season. Unfortunately, that isn't going to be easy, especially on the road against a team that has, in their first five games of the season, looked scary impressive. For all the talk about the Beavers' bubble being punctured, whether it was against UCLA or Arizona or BYU, they've still managed to reel off some impressive victories.
Saturday, without Sean Mannion, their quarterback who was injured in the team's 19-6 win over Washington State, Oregon State took BYU's best shot on the road and still managed to overpower the Cougars for an impressive 42-24 victory. It was a game they were underdogs in and one I really expected them to lose. It didn't happen. In the fourth, after playing to a near-draw with BYU for most the game, the Beavers broke it open and ran away with a tough road contest against what was supposed to be one of the best defenses in the country.
They managed 450 yards - 332 through the air - and that's just something you don't expect against the Cougars. Utah's defense has got to improve over their last outing or the Beavers will have no trouble moving the ball ... especially at home.
Look, I keep telling myself Oregon State is due for a loss, but on paper, this game doesn't even seem like it should be close. The Beavers rank 45th in total defense - which is less impressive than the Utes' first four opponents of the season ... but also better than UCLA, whose defense Utah struggled to move the ball on consistently - while ranking 32nd in total offense. Of Utah's first six opponents, only UCLA and Arizona State have more impressive numbers.
With this being on the road, and the Utes still struggling to find much traction, they've got a huge hurdle ahead of 'em. And while I don't think this is a game anyone should pencil in as a loss, I also don't think we should inflate our expectations ... it's going to be tough.
For starters, Corvallis is not an easy place to play. We found that out the hard way in 2007 when Utah opened the season with a 24-7 loss there. Though Travis Wilson and Utah seemed to sustain drives more in their last game, for the Utes to have a chance Saturday, they'll need to convert those drives into points. Right now, that's the biggest drag on the offense - the fact they only average 22.3 points per game ... which is 97th in the country. That is unacceptable and inflated, mostly, because of the Northern Colorado game. You take that out of the equation and the margin falls to just 18 points. Dreadful.
Because of this, I don't expect, and won't predict, victory. Maybe if the game was being played in Salt Lake City, but right now, it's hard for anyone to believe, blindly I might add, in this team. There is certainly hope, and they did look improved against UCLA, but there are still way too many questions to answer before I'll feel confident enough to believe Utah is going into a top-ten team's house and walking out victors.
The last time the Utes did that was against Colorado ... in 1961. So, it's something not easily done.
The Beavers will be fired up for this game. They had originally called for a blackout,
but decided against the idea because of racial sensitivity (I don't get it ... though, I do cringe when fans paint their faces black), apparently, it's back on, so, the atmosphere still stands. It's a late start and a nationally broadcast game (ESPN2). Their fans are going to be loud for this one ... especially with their top-ten ranking and hard-fought win last week.
But this is the Pac-12 and upsets happen ... a lot. The Utes came close to upending USC a couple weeks ago and if they can get a few breaks, they might be able to find themselves in a similar position Saturday. Even so, I think it will take a perfect storm and great play not just from Wilson, but John White IV and the defense, which, on third down last Saturday, was atrocious. It will also require a superbly coached game by Brian Johnson and maybe, with a healthy White, and a still strong Kelvin York, he'll look to establish a bit of a ground game instead of leaning heavily on the pass for most the game.
I'd love to see Utah win this one because it's rare you knock off a top-ten team (the Utes have only done it three times in school history). But I'm not expecting it because this team is still too flawed from my perspective to go on the road and do something not many programs have been able to do over the years. That doesn't mean they stand no chance of winning ... I just wonder if that chance is small.
So, I enter this game with grounded expectations and really just want to see a good game with some strong fight and improvements over last week's performance. Even in defeat, I think a lot can be gained in situations like this. Of course, victory should be the number one goal and while I might sound defeatist, I also wouldn't be floored if victory is seized. I may not embrace the idea ... but I'm not fully ready to give up on it.
Either way, let's see what this team can do.