By T.J. Mathewson
Contributor, 750 The Game
Off a shocking loss on the Palouse to the Washington State Cougars, No. 19 Oregon State is back at home on a short week to host the No. 10 Utah Utes. Saturday exposed a number of things that the Beavers need to clean up if they are going to slog through this conference to the finish line: Better secondary play, more consistency in the passing game, and starting faster. The Beavers defeated the Utes the last time they visited Corvallis, a 42-34 affair in 2021 that handed Utah their only conference loss en route to a Rose Bowl appearance. The Utes have beaten the Beavers 7 of 10 times since they joined the conference in 2011. The all-time series between the two programs is knotted up 12-12-1. Despite the Utes being ranked nine spots ahead in the AP Poll, the Beavers are a 3.5-point favorite.
How does Oregon State win this football game? Let’s examine.
1. Load the box against a multi-facet rushing attack
It’s no secret that the Utes want to run the football, but with redshirt freshman Nate Johnson taking the reps at QB with Cam Rising out, that identity has never been more clear. In the two games that Johnson has started at QB, a 31-7 win over Weber State and a 14-7 win over UCLA a week ago, the Utes have run the ball 100 times and passed 38 times. It’s not out of absurd success — Utah netted just 2.1 yards per carry against the Bruins, but more so a lack of success through the air. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is also using the legs of Johnson to the best of his ability as the redshirt freshman has rushed the ball 30 times in his two starts alongside the two-headed rushing tandem of Ja’Quinden Jackson and Jaylon Glover. As long as Cam Rising stays on the sideline, this is what the 2023 Utah offense will be. The Beavers have done that pretty well this season, they rank in the top ten in stopping the run nationally allowing just 2.7 yards per rush. If that’s all that this Utah offense can throw (or run) at you, you have to stop it.
2. Speaking of, is Cam Rising playing?
Head Coach Jonathan Smith said the Beavers are preparing for both quarterbacks on Friday. Despite Johnson being the more likely option, what if Rising plays? Rising has started 24 games in his Utah career, and won 18 of them. While both quarterbacks are dangerous on the ground, Rising brings the threat in the passing game this offense is sorely lacking. Utah lists Rising as the starter on its weekly depth chart, but nobody outside the Utah circle will have a good idea if Rising is going to play until Friday rolls around. Rising and Nate Johnson are splitting No. 1 reps during practice this week, Kyle Whittingham noted. You’d have to think the Beavers see this as a totally different game depending on whether the senior quarterback plays or not, the Utes scored nearly twice as much (36.0 points per game) in 2022 with Rising healthy than they have in 2023 (19.3 PPG).
3. Don’t let the Utah front four ruin your night
Ask UCLA freshman Dante Moore how he felt about the Utah front in the first conference road game in his career. The quartet of Jonah Elliss, Logan Fano, Keanu Tanuvasa, and Junior Tafua sacked the freshman six times, racked up 11 tackles for loss, and allowed just 0.3 YPC. 0.3! That defensive unit picked off Moore on the first play of the game and returned it for a touchdown. Since Graham Mertz threw for 333 yards and completed 33/44 passes in week one, the Utes have made quarterbacking a living hell, allowing less than a 50.0 completion percentage and a sack rate of over 10 percent. I can’t imagine this is a game where the Beavers drop DJ Uiagalelei back to pass 30 times like they did a week ago, but when they do, the junior is going to need to use his legs to avoid sacks and keep the offense on schedule.
Goodness, the Beavers played so poorly a week ago and yet still finished within just three points of the Cougars. Utah does not provide the same offensive threat that Washington State did even if Cam Rising plays, and the Reser Stadium effect will be in full force. The Beavers will come home motivated, and win an absolute slugfest against a really good Utah team.
My Pick: Oregon State 16 Utah 13