In Utah's last two football games, the Ute secondary faced USC's outstanding trio of receivers and then went against Washington State's group of pass-catchers, spread all over the field.
Now comes a matchup with the Pac-12′s most productive offensive player, Oregon State receiver Isaiah Hodgins. That’s the unrelenting nature of life in this league, although the No. 15 Utes had a week off to regroup after their excellent performance against WSU.
“Big-time receiver, and the quarterback’s playing well,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said Monday about OSU, beginning his weekly news conference. “They’re playing with some confidence right now.”
That’s what a 48-31 win over UCLA will do for you, as OSU quarterback Jake Luton passed for 285 yards and five touchdowns, three to Hodgins. The 6-foot-4 receiver caught 10 passes for the second straight game and ranks in the top five nationally with 43 receptions for 632 yards and nine touchdowns in five games.
The Beavers will test a Utah secondary that feels better about itself after shutting out Washington State in the second half of a 38-13 victory. The Utes had allowed three long TD passes against USC.
“It just reinforces the fact that we know know what we can do, we know what we’re capable of,” said safety Terrell Burgess, who was credited with three of Utah’s 12 pass breakups against the Cougars. “We know that we can stop teams if we put our mind to it. …Our D-line’s already great, not many people want to run on us. We need to make sure it’s prominent that they don’t even want to pass on us.”
NO. 15 UTAH AT OREGON STATE
When • Saturday, 6 p.m. MDT
TV • Pac-12 Networks.
OSU will try each approach, with running backs Artavis Pierce and Jermar Jefferson complementing Luton. Hodgins, though, is the biggest threat. One of Utah’s strategic options is using cornerback Jaylon Johnson on Hodgins, regardless of where the receiver lines up, as opposed to keeping Johnson on the left side.
“Jaylon Johnson is a weapon for us,” Whittingham said. “You're not maximizing your personnel if you're not doing it [some] percentage of the time.”
Utah successfully used that method in the second half of a 2018 game vs. Oregon, having Johnson defend Dillon Mitchell. The coaches were reluctant to do so against USC’s Michael Pittman Jr. last month, apparently because of such little dropoff in talent from Pittman to the Trojans’ other top receivers.
In the Beavers’ case, no other wide receiver has more than 13 catches this season. Noah Togiai, a tight end from Hunter High School, is second on the team with 14 receptions.
The only complication of assigning Johnson to Hodgins, Whittingham said, is locating the receiver when OSU plays quickly and moves him around in the formation.
As for Utah’s personnel, Whittingham remains hopeful that running back Zack Moss will be able to return Saturday after missing the win over Washington State with a shoulder injury. Receiver Britain Covey remains on a redshirting track after sitting out the last game and reaching the NCAA’s four-game limit that would allow him to retain a year’s eligibility. But if Covey’s knee feels better in the next few weeks and the Utes need him, that status could change, Whittingham said.
Utah also is preparing offensive lineman Bamidele Olaseni to play in four games at some point this season,. The NCAA recently ruled that the junior college transfer, a London native, has one year of Division I eligibility. The Utes can apply the redshirt rule to Olaseni this season and play him full-time in 2020.
The trick is for Utah to work him into the line’s rotation in 2019. “You will see him in four games, is all I can tell you,” Whittingham said.