The Utah football team is in Corvallis, Ore. Thursday night to take on the Oregon State Beavers in a matchup of 4-1 Pac-12 teams. Utah will be looking for revenge after last year’s 51-48 heartbreaking overtime loss at the hands of the Beavers.
The 2014 Beavers are led by senior signal caller Sean Mannion. Oregon State and head coach Mike Riley have run one of the best passing offenses in the country the past few years, and Mannion has played a major role in its success. Mannion's torching of the Utes' secondary at Rice-Eccles Stadium last year was just one stop during his monstrous junior season in which he threw for over 4,000 yards and 37 touchdowns.
This year Mannion has struggled to match last year's production, throwing only five touchdowns against four interceptions, while passing for 1,304 yards. One possible explanation for the decline in production could be the receiving corp for Oregon State has been nothing to write home about. Gone from a season ago is All American and 2013 Biletnikoff award winner Brandin Cooks, with no one having stepped up to replace his production. Sophomore Victor Bolden has led the way snagging 24 passes for 240 yards, but only has one touchdown catch to show for it. In fact, no receiver has more than one touchdown and no one has clearly separated themselves from the pack as Mannion's go-to guy.
In the backfield for the Beavers, senior Terron Ward and junior Storm Woods split the carries evenly. Both have carried the ball 59 times with Ward rushing for 343 yards and six touchdowns and Woods 342 yards and three touchdowns. Both are tough runners with the ability to catch passes out of the backfield and will need to be watched on screens. It appears the pass happy Beavers have made a more concerted effort to move the ball on the ground, which has led to the ground game outscoring the pass game, a rare occurrence in Corvallis. Reilly has mentioned the importance of being able to move the ball on the ground as well as through the air. This year, the stats show the Beavers' commitment to running a more balanced offense, though the pass game continues to be OSU's bread and butter.
Obviously Oregon State's offensive line is going to have to keep Mannion upright if the Beavers want to win. The Beaver offensive line continues to miss all Pac-12 center Issac Seumalo, who is out due to two different surgeries to repair a broken foot. Despite Seumalo's absence, the line has played relatively well, all things considered. It should be noted, however, their schedule hasn't been the most challenging thus far. Of OSU's opponents only USC's D-line could be considered tougher than the Utes front seven, and with the way the Utes have been playing, that statement could be argued.
So what does this mean for the Utah defense? What can the Utes expect Oregon State to 'throw' at them?
The Utes were able to sack Brett Hundley 10 times two weeks ago, and Mannion does not have near the ability to escape the rush that Hundley does. To avoid a similar fate at the hands of the Utah D-Line, look for the Beavers to try and get Ward and Woods going early in the run game. OSU can't allow the Utes to pin back their ears and come after Mannion every play, especially with the Beavers' questions at receiver. They will try to establish enough of a run game early to open up the play-action pass for Mannion. If the Utes defense can make a couple stops early, it will go a long way toward setting the tone for the game.
For the Utes, the gameplan should be fairly simple. Stonewall the running game and force the Beavers receivers to make plays against the Utes secondary. If the offense can put a few scores on the board and force the Beavers to play from behind, the front seven could have another field day, this time against OSU's patchwork line. Mannion can't beat you with his legs, meaning no spy will be necessary in this game. That will free up a linebacker to blitz or drop into coverage as the situation dictates.
This game won't be a walk in the park however. Utah recently had trouble with another team that likes to pass. Connor Halliday throwing all over the field is still fresh in many Utes fans' memories, and Mannion is considered to be a notch above in class. The secondary will have to stay with the Beaver receivers much better than they did against Wazzu. This game could come down to the Utah secondary giving the front seven enough time to get pressure on Mannion and forcing him into making mistakes.