No. 20-ranked Utah looks to improve on their 4-1 record (1-1 Pac-12) against the Oregon State Beavers (4-1, 1-1) tonight at 8 p.m. MT at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Ore. Utah is coming off the upset win over the formerly No. 8 UCLA Bruins, while Oregon State is coming off a 36-31 win at Colorado. This is the Pac-12 home opener for the Beavers, who are hoping to improve on their own Pac-12 North record.
The Beavers have only really faced one good team in USC, and they lost 31-10. No offense to the other teams they played, but it has been one FCS opponent, two Mountain West Conference teams, and Colorado, who is currently the only team in the Pac-12 without a conference win. Oregon State has yet to face a Top 25 offense (Colorado at 29th is the best they have faced) and have faced a San Diego State offense (83rd in the nation in total offense) and Hawaii (100th) who often struggle to move the football. The two Top 40 offenses that OSU has faced (USC and Colorado) have both scored over 30 points on the Beavers defense (35 for USC and 31 for Colorado). The point is, the defensive numbers for OSU need to be taken with a grain of salt so far due to not facing elite offenses.
Oregon State gave up 331.4 yards per game (29th) and yield 4.85 yards per play (29th) in their five total games. If we instead examine the Beavers defense in their two conference games (against USC and Colorado), they gave up 446.0 yards per game (77th) and 5.65 yards per play (65th). Two games is a small sample size, but it shows the Beavers have not performed nearly as well against conference foes.
In my research of the Oregon State defense, I keep reading that their defense has struggled against mobile quarterbacks under defensive coordinator Mark Banker. Last season, Utah quarterback Travis Wilson had a career high 142 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Additionally, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota averaged over seven yards per carry against the Beaver defense last season (even while still hampered by a knee injury). This is something Utah needs to be able to exploit to win this game, especially if Kendal Thompson starts at quarterback. OSU is going to try to take away the read option play, and Utah cannot allow that to happen in this game, or they will be forced to throw against a talented OSU secondary.
The defensive line is short on players after starting defensive tackle Jalen Grimble and his back up Noke Tago both suffered knee injuries against USC. To make matters worse, Oregon State expected junior college transfer Kyle Peko to finally be academically eligible for the game on Thursday, but he apparently failed a test he needed to pass and will not be eligible against Utah. Oregon State does have a positive surprise in Luke Hollingsworth at the defensive tackle position, although he was playing defensive end through fall camp and much of the season. He is performing well above expectations (for someone who has not played defensive tackle since high school) and recorded a sack against Colorado. Obum Gwachum, a converted wide receiver, is the leading pass rusher for Oregon State with five tackles for loss and four sacks.
Against Colorado, the depleted defensive line allowed the Buffaloes to average 4.4 yards per carry, their second highest total of the year behind only the 6.3 yards per carry Colorado had against Arizona State, a game in which Colorado gained 90 of their 232 total rushing yards on two rushes. USC's two longest carries (21 yards by Justin Davis and 17 yards by Buck Allen, both for touchdowns) came in the fourth quarter after both defensive tackles were out with injuries. Oregon State yielded 3.88 yards per carry in their nonconference games, compared to 4.25 yards per carry in conference games. Part of that can be attributed to better competition, but I also think that is due in part because of the injuries at defensive tackle.
Oregon State has had the talented Michael Doctor available this season, after he missed most of last season (including the game against Utah). None of OSU's linebackers are in the Top 40 in tackles per game in the Pac-12 because they all contribute fairly equally and each average roughly six tackles per game. Doctor has 29 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, and an interception on the season. D.J. Alexander, another talented linebacker, has 27 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, and one interception. Both of these two have recorded an interception, showing they can be effective in pass coverage. It will be interesting to watch how well the OSU linebackers can cover the shorter throws that the Utah offense relies heavily on lately. Having talent at linebacker can help to mitigate injuries along the defensive line for stopping the run.
Oregon State has been difficult to throw on this season. They only allow 198.8 yards per game passing (23rd). They are currently tenth in the nation in pass efficiency defense, but they are 88th in conference games, which were against the only good passing team the Beavers have faced so far this season. Cornerback Steven Nelson was able to hold several talented receivers in check. USC's Nelson Agholor only managed three catches for 27 yards and no touchdowns, and Colorado's Nelson Spruce (who came into the OSU game as the nation's receiving leader), only caught six passes for 35 yards with no touchdowns. The matchup between Nelson and Utah wide receiver Dres Anderson could be key for getting the Utah passing attack going. Nelson and free safety Tyrequek Zimmerman each have two interceptions on the season. One possible advantage Utah may be able to exploit is the fact that Oregon State's starting cornerbacks, Nelson and Larry Scott, are both only 5-11, so the bigger Utah receivers like Kenneth Scott and Tim Patrick may have success catching jump balls over the shorter corners.
The Beaver defense is better than many expected this year, and they have had over a week to prepare for Utah's offense and Thompson, the likely starting quarterback, meaning Utah will not have the element of surprise they had against UCLA. Utah will not win this game through the air, they have not proven to be a great passing team, and OSU is strong against the pass. But Utah will need to be able to throw enough to keep the defense honest and prevent OSU from loading the box. Running back Devontae Booker will need to have another big game, and I believe Thompson will need to have success running the football, as well. The 2014 Beavers won't be giving up 48 points to Utah this in Corvallis, with their improved defense, and points may be at a premium in this game.