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Utah football: Utes aim to win first Pac-12 opener

University of Utah football head coach Kyle Whittingham. (Courtesy University of Utah Sports Information)

By Lya Wodraska

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Sep 13 2013 11:47AM
Updated Feb 14, 2014 11:34PM

The Utah Utes had their way with Weber State, making long plays, running the no-huddle effectively and getting a near-shutout.

If only life could be so easy this week.

The 2-0 Utes know their Pac-12 opener against Oregon State (1-1) Saturday at 8 p.m. at Rice-Eccles Stadium is a challenge on an entirely different level.

Oregon State, picked to finish third in the North Division behind Oregon and Stanford, represents Utah’s chance to win its first league opener since it joined the Pac-12 two years ago.

To do so, the Utes need to display the effective offense they showed against the Wildcats, and they must find a way to slow Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion and his high-flying passing game.

It’s a tall order for a young team, but the Utes are extremely motivated, said safety Eric Rowe.

"We’ve got a lot of confidence, and if we can pull off another win and go 3-0, that would be special," he said. "To go 3-0 with a win over a Pac-12 team, that would be even bigger."

The Utes haven’t enjoyed such a start since the 2010 season, when Utah won its first eight games and finished 10-3. That season was the last for the Utes in the MWC, a league in which some wins could be taken for granted.

That isn’t the case in the Pac-12, where Utah is just 7-11 combined in two years.

While the Utes say they don’t put an emphasis on winning one game more than another, they do acknowledge there is a certain amount of urgency to win this game.

"You always play as hard as you can, but this is a conference game, so it does feel like it counts more," defensive end Trevor Reilly said.

The second half of Utah’s schedule is loaded with ranked opponents and road games, so this one at home against a beatable opponent is an opportunity the Utes don’t want to miss.

The Beavers have some key injuries along their offensive line and in the linebacking unit that could make them vulnerable. While Utah coach Kyle Whittingham discounted the impact the injuries could have, saying "everyone is beat up," he didn’t discount the need to win this game.

"It would be great to get started on the right foot," Whittingham said. "We haven’t done that in the first two years in conference, and we’ve had some great weeks of practice and momentum on our side with victories, so it should be a great game."

Finding a way to slow Mannion would go a long way in helping the Utes reach their goal.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound junior ranks near the top of all passing categories in the NCAA.

Like Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton, he’ll do his best to exploit Utah’s young secondary.

Keeton threw for 314 yards against the Utes in the opener and also rushed for 85 yards and a touchdown.

While Mannion doesn’t pose the same kind of running threat, he does plenty of damage with his arm, Whittingham said.

"We have to get a pass rush and not let him get comfortable and have all day to throw the ball," Whittingham said. "When he does, he’s very effective."

Last year, the Utes were very effective against the Beavers, with their defense holding Oregon State to just 226 yards, including 52 rushing.

However, the Utes were done in by four turnovers, including two interceptions by Travis Wilson.

That game, which was Wilson’s second start, remains vivid in his mind.

"It was just me being nervous and unsure where to go with the ball," he said. "I have a great sense of our offense this year, and hopefully I can correct my mistakes and make sure it’s a great game."

The Utes need more than just a great game — they need a win.

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