Kragthorpe: Unlikely Top 10 teams facing BYU, Utah
College football • Nobody saw this coming from either Notre Dame or Oregon State.
Published: October 17, 2012 01:34PM
Updated: October 18, 2012 12:02AM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

This convergence of BYU and Utah facing top-10 football teams on the same Saturday for the first time in history is remarkable, mainly because of who those opponents happen to be.

Oregon State and Notre Dame?

No, I can’t claim to have seen this coming.

Not when the other coaches once voted my father as the Pac-10 Coach of the Year with a 3-4-1 conference record, defining that as a landmark accomplishment for Oregon State.

Not when I once was dispatched to the Notre Dame campus to await Urban Meyer’s coming from Utah as the Fighting Irish’s new coach, only to have Meyer shrewdly choose Florida, believing that’s where he would have a much greater chance of winning.

Yet here are the Beavers and the Irish in 2012 — unbeaten, climbing in the polls and hosting Utah and BYU in contests that are euphemistically being labeled “trap” games. That’s another way of saying the only chance the Utes and Cougars have is hoping the other guys are overlooking them.

This is weird stuff. Oregon State’s resurgence is stunning to me not only because of my personal history — remembering the mid-1980s, when the father of Utah’s Kruger brothers played for OSU teams that won five games in two years — but because of what happened last season. OSU went 3-9, losing to Sacramento State and giving up a combined 507 rushing yards to BYU and Utah.

Just look at the Beavers now. They’re fourth in the country in rushing defense, allowing only 350 yards through five games against the likes of Wisconsin, UCLA and BYU. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham remarked how OSU is getting much different results with basically the same players. OSU’s Mike Riley said the way his Beavers would perform in 2012 was “pretty much a mystery to me,” with the only clue of potential greatness being that “this team had a real good vibe to it,” judging by offseason workouts.

And then there’s Notre Dame, the school of fans’ perpetual delusions regarding its status in modern college football. During the failed vigil for Meyer that December afternoon in 2004, I visited Kent Baer, a Cache Valley native who was serving as the Irish’s interim coach that month. He told a tale of how tough it is for Notre Dame, with the cold climate in northern Indiana, elite academic requirements and a tradition built before recruits were born.

“Notre Dame’s everything you heard it was when we were kids — and more,” Baer said. “It’s the dream of a lifetime to coach at a place like this. At the same time, it’s difficult. It’s not the same as it used to be. People used to think if Notre Dame came calling, that’s where the kid was going to go.”

In his office, watching the ESPN crawl reporting Meyer’s choice of Florida, Baer convinced me that was the right decision. As his two national championships with the Gators would suggest, Meyer knew what he was doing, and Charlie Weis would fail in the job Meyer turned down. Yet in his third year, Brian Kelly is making it work.

The turnaround began in Kelly’s first season, when his 4-5 team beat Utah. After being left out of the preseason AP Top 25, Notre Dame now is 6-0 and positioned for a title shot if the Irish somehow beat Oklahoma and USC on the road. That’s a stretch, but Kelly is proving that living up to high expectations is still possible at Notre Dame — a place where, as Baer told me, “When you’re winning, there’s nothing like it. When you’re losing, there’s nothing like it.”

The Irish are winning everything right now. Just as improbably, so are the Beavers. This can’t last much longer, can it?

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt