Monson: Utah cannot lose to Oregon State
College football • Utes can set tone for entire season with victory Saturday.
Published: September 13, 2013 12:06AM
Updated: September 12, 2013 11:50PM
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Kalani Sitake during University of Utah spring football photos Monday, April 18, 2011,in Salt Lake City Utah. Photo by Tom Smart/University of Utah Sports Information

Kalani Sitake knows his Utes cannot lose their game on Saturday night.

They can’t.

Can, but can’t.

If they do, their conference season is five deep balls past troubled, spiraling now toward gravely damaged. All those Pac-12 stickers around town become mere — wait, what? — window dressing, again. They become almost a joke, like some sort of misguided marketing campaign heralding the very thing that owns and crushes you. And Utah remains a kind minor member of a cruel major league.

How tired is that?

Winning now is the only tonic.

“It’s huge,” Sitake said.

So, yeah, the crunch comes early this time around. If Utah doesn’t find within itself the mental and physical wherewithal on its home field to beat Oregon State, a team already sent reeling by Eastern Washington in a game Beavers coach Mike Riley called “a total meltdown,” where exactly will it stumble upon victory in league play this year?

Against UCLA? Against Stanford? At Arizona? At Oregon?

A season ago, Utah won only one Pac-12 road game. To progress, or even to hold steady, it has to win at Rice-Eccles, and it has to take advantage of a matchup against an opponent who has injury issues on both sides of the ball, including an offensive line whose starting right side will miss Saturday’s game.

Kyle Whittingham has characterized his defensive front as one of the best in the Pac-12. Against the Beavs, it will have to earn that praise to win, to keep a team’s confidence afloat.

Football psychology requires as much. Coming off a 3-6 conference record, losing their first league game now, under the aforementioned favorable conditions, sets them up for a whole lot of defeat and disappointment in the arduous weeks ahead.

Riley, whose OSU teams too often have gotten off to slow starts, said Wednesday early league wins are paramount: “I would rather start with momentum, frankly.”

For Utah to do so, it will have to play strong pass defense. Beating the Beavers, who have struggled on the ground, requires bumping and bothering quarterback Sean Mannion and a group of receivers, tight ends and catch-and-run backs who have combined for an average of nearly 400 passing yards a game. Mannion has completed 68 of 86 throws for 794 yards and seven touchdowns. Brandin Cooks averages 10 catches and 144 receiving yards.

“Mannion’s a great quarterback,” Sitake said. “He has good composure and good poise in the pocket. And he’s really accurate.”

So … what has the defensive coordinator concocted to rupture the Beaver air attack?

“I can’t really throw out the game plan right now,” he said. “But there are some things we can do. We have to take away their strengths. We have to utilize our best players and get some good matchups, do some things that we’re really good at. The first thing is to focus on what we do, things we can hang our hat on and find some ways to disrupt their strengths, disrupt their timing, whether it’s the throw game or run game. We just have to do some things that are a little different.”

Translation: The Utes have to pressure Mannion. They have to throw the house at him with that tough front. They have to make him do what he doesn’t want to do — move, and keep moving.

If they allow him to sit all snug in the pocket, he will go on completing 80 percent of his passes, will go on throwing for 400 yards and exact his toll from them for a lack of aggression. Leaving a defensive secondary isolated against this kind of offense is foolish.

“We’ll see what kind of DBs we have, what kind of defense we are, whether we’re going to put pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush or add more to it,” Sitake said. “All that mixed with stopping the run is a tough task. They’re a quality opponent. … Our DBs know what’s at hand, they know what’s coming up.”

Sitake is fully aware if he stops or at least slows the pass, he wins the game and stirs hope in a program that needs it.

If he doesn’t … Utah loses a game it cannot lose.

Can but can’t.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.