After all of the buildup to Utah’s Pac-12 football opener in mid-September, the Utes’ loss at USC felt like more than one defeat.
When Utah responded the following week with a 38-13 dismantling of Washington State, the performance seemed like more than one victory – especially when the Utes were off last weekend to enjoy it.
Are they truly cured, though? Oregon State, believe it or not, will help answer that question Saturday night at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Ore.
The No. 15 Utes need to generate more momentum to carry them through their remaining seven Pac-12 games. Their task is “to keep the roll going,” receiver Samson Nacua said. “We can’t look back and dwell on the victory and bathe in it, we’ve just got to move forward and keep going.”
The visit to Corvallis might be Utah’s least challenging game in this phase of the schedule between bye weeks, with No. 18 Arizona State, California and Washington to follow. But that’s not to say it should be easy.
A game that looked like a minor annoyance on Utah’s schedule as of only a couple of weeks ago has become a genuine test, thanks to OSU’s offensive emergence. The Beavers rallied with touchdowns on four straight possessions to tie Stanford before losing on a last-second field goal two weeks ago, then they routed UCLA 48-31 at the Rose Bowl. Add it up, and that’s 76 points in six quarters for an offense that will give the Utes multidimensional worries, even if the production mainly is built around one star receiver.
“Every week, you’re going to face guys that are big-time athletes,” Ute defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley said. “This week, it’s No. 17.”
That would be Isaiah Hodgins, the top-graded receiver in the country, according to Pro Football Focus. Utah’s strategic matchup with Hodgins and the OSU offense will be fascinating on multiple levels. Unlike the Utes’ alignment vs. Washington State last month, when Scalley used six defensive backs, Utah will have to honor Artavis Pierce and Jermar Jefferson in the running game.
The next issue is how much of a pass rush Utah can generate against an OSU scheme that often uses maximum protection, figuring that Hodgins or another receiver eventually will get open on a double-move route. And most interesting of all is how often Utah will assign star cornerback Jaylon Johnson to Hodgins one-on-one, regardless of where the receiver aligns.
Utah’s staff labels it “star coverage,” and it memorably worked with Johnson in the fourth quarter of a win over Oregon last November.
"Jaylon Johnson is a weapon for us,” Ute coach Kyle Whittingham said. “You’re not maximizing your personnel if you’re not doing it [some] percentage of the time.”
The Utes didn’t use that strategy against USC’s Michael Pittman Jr., though, respecting the Trojans’ other receivers. The Beavers’ receiving numbers drop off markedly after Hodgins’ 43 catches for 632 yards and nine touchdowns in five games.
OSU is highly efficient inside the 20-yard line, partly because the 6-foot-4 Hodgins is such a reliable target for quarterback Jake Luton on passes lofted into the end zone. Even as two-touchdown underdogs, the Beavers probably will score some points Saturday, and they’re unlikely to turn the ball over. Luton hasn’t thrown an interception in 161 attempts this season (a backup QB was picked off once) and the Beavers haven’t lost a fumble.
The Utes themselves have only two turnovers in five games, both via fumbles. Utah’s offensive coaching staff challenged the players to score 40 points against Washington State, and they almost did. That level of production turned out to be unnecessary because of the defense’s strong showing, but who knows? It may be required Saturday, when running back Zack Moss remains questionable with a shoulder injury.
The Utes have pieced together a productive running game in Moss’ absence and quarterback Tyler Huntley — Pro Football Focus’ No. 10-ranked quarterback — has played consistently well. In contrast to OSU’s approach, Utah’s scheme is designed to spread the ball around to multiple receivers, with no player having more than 11 receptions.
The Utes will hope their cast of pass-catchers collectively can outperform Hodgins, with help from Johnson and the Utah secondary.
UTAH AT OREGON STATE
At Reser Stadium, Corvallis, Ore.
Kickoff: Saturday, 6 p.m. MDT.
TV: Pac-12 Networks.
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: Utah 4-1 (1-1 Pac-12); OSU 2-3 (1-1).
Series history: OSU leads, 11-9-1.
Last meeting: Utah 19, OSU 14 (2016).
About the Utes: No. 15 Utah could move into a tie for first place in the Pac-12 South with a win and an Arizona loss to Washington. … Junior receiver Britain Covey keeps practicing with the team, although he intends to redshirt. … Offensive lineman Bamidele Olaseni is working with the travel squad, but he appears to be two or three weeks away from taking the field with four games to play as a redshirt. …. Next Saturday’s home game vs. No. 18 Arizona State will have a 4 p.m. kickoff.
About the Beavers: OSU coach Jonathan Smith is 4-13 in his second season, after Gary Andersen went 7-23 before resigning in the middle of his third year. … The Beavers rank third in the Pac-12 in total offense (475.6 yards) and eighth in total defense (440.6). … Noah Togiai, a senior tight end from Hunter High School, is OSU’s No. 2 receiver with 14 catches. … Saturday is homecoming in Corvallis and the Pac-12 Networks will stage “The Pregame” show live from the campus at 12:30 p.m. MDT.