A year ago, when these two teams met, both were looking to salvage their season. Utah sat at 0-4 in conference play and 3-4 on the season, while Oregon State was an even worse 2-5 ... well on their way to a disappointing 3-9 record. We all knew, for the Utes to make a run at a bowl bid, the Oregon State game was pretty much a must-win. Utah could not afford to drop to 0-5 in Pac-12 play and 3-5 on the season ... not mentally, anyway.
They won, in a pretty decisive manner and wouldn't lose again until a month later against Colorado. The season probably turned around against Pitt two weeks prior, but this was the win that meant a lot to their late-season run. Not only was it their official first-ever Pac-12 victory, it also signaled the team had maybe a bit more fight in them than we had expected going into the game. Ultimately, that fight would lead to an 8-5 season and an impressive come from behind victory over Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
This year, the Beavers provide, once again, another potential season-defining performance. Win Saturday and a bowl bid will be in reach. Lose, and this program will have to thread the needle just perfectly to find six wins to go bowling for the tenth straight time. Does Utah have it in them? I guess we'll find out in a few days.
But more importantly, what will it take to beat Oregon State and why are the Beavers so improved over last year?
I asked Andy Wooldridge over at Building the Dam these questions and more to size up the Utes' chances in Corvallis Saturday night.
How surprised are you about this year's Beavers? I mean, c'mon ... did anyone expect this?
Like everyone, we are pretty surprised at how well Oregon St. has put the pieces together. We knew a lot of players would have better years, but whether that would translate to complete games was a big unknown. 5-7 wins was where most people's expectations were at.
The big deal is that the lines have stayed nearly 100% healthy, and that's made a lot of other things possible.
What's Oregon State's biggest strengths on offense and defense?
The passing game is the strength of the offense. Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks are making their case as one of the best WR combinations in the country, and they are certainly one of the fastest. No one has been able to stay with them.
Defensively, its speed. Oregon St. has great speed on the edges, and has played a lot of nickel and dime defenses, also intended to get more speed on the field. And the Beavers have rotated more depth than they ever have on defense, which has kept that speed fresh as the game wears on.
Tell us about Cody Vaz...
He's 4" shorter than Sean Mannion, and was shorter than Ryan Katz before that. In this age of the prototypical NFL quarterback needing to be tall, that was the reason he was the backup and they started. He has as good an arm as Mannion, as you probably noticed from the tape of the BYU game.
This is actually Cody's 4th season in the system, and he's been the #2 the last 2 years as well, and at Oregon St., the #2 gets almost as many reps as the starter, so all he lacked was game experience.
He's more mobile than Mannion as well.
He made a serious run at the starting job in the spring, but at this point, he's not going to grow 4 inches taller. What's impressive is that he's never gotten "down" about all the time and work he put in without getting to play, which often happens.
Kind of interesting that last year, Utah's blackout happened against Oregon State and now ya'll are holding yours against Utah. Is this your first-ever blackout?
No, Oregon St. tried one back in 2007. There was political over-reaction to it, which put the idea on the shelf for a few years. This year, they decided to try it again, since essentially everyone has done it successfully. And it almost got called off again, when a vocal individual complained. Fortunately, the University President stepped in and restored sanity, and its on again.
After all, unlike Oregon, Washington, Stanford, Utah, BYU, Arizona St., and who knows who else, we at Oregon St. have always done black, since its actually a "regular" team color.
What has been the difference between this year's Beavers and last year's?
For one thing, all the freshmen Oregon St. threw into the fray last year got a lot of experience, and now they have grown up, physically and mentally. For another, as mentioned above, the Beavers have been mostly healthy instead of pounded by injuries, which not only forced young players into the fray, but also forced several into playing out of position.
But there have also been 2 key coaching moves made by Coach Riley.
He hired Rod Perry, who has over 20 years of NFL experience as a player and a coach, to coach the secondary, which also happens to be the youngest position group on the team. Perry brought advanced techniques in, and implemented the nickel and dime schemes I mentioned above, which put much more speed on the field.
And Riley took over calling the plays, something he was doing back a few years ago when the Beavers were consistently running off 9 and 10 win seasons. He had handed that task off the last 3 years, each of which saw a significant fall-off in the offense from the prior season. Oregon St. is running mostly the same offense, but the play selection to the situation is much better.
How do fans views Utah? We beat you pretty good last year ... but it's clear a lot has changed over the past 12 months.
Oregon St. fans respect Utah. There's a lot of history between the programs over the years, and the last 2 games, both in Salt Lake City, were big Ute wins. Most of Beaver Nation expects a win this time, possibly similar to the last visit Utah made to Corvallis, as they are aware the Utes are struggling, and the Beavers are playing as well as they ever have.
But most understand what losing a quarterback or two can do, and that there's still a lot of good players and coaches down there. It's hard to imagine that ANYONE who was there last year in Rice-Eccles (which includes almost all of the players on this year's team) would ever underestimate what Utah is capable of.
I'd like to thank Andy for taking the time to answer some questions. I'm excited for Saturday and hope for a good game! GO UTES!