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Utah football’s top priority vs. Oregon State: Stop Jermar Jefferson, the Pac-12’s leading rusher

Oregon State running back Jermar Jefferson (6) weaves past Washington State linebacker Justus Rogers (37) and linebacker Brennan Jackson (80) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Corvallis, Ore., Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. Washington State won 38-28. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)

There are some exceptions, but the University of Utah’s top priority on defense from week to week is usually the same.

Stop the run.

The defensive front needs to win the line of scrimmage, and stop the opponent from running the ball at will. The Utes may be 0-2 going into Saturday night’s visit from Oregon State (2-2), but those two opponents have not run the ball well. USC managed just 93 rushing yards on Nov. 21, Washington managed just 88 rushing yards last Saturday, and the Utes have now held seven straight regular-season opponents under 100 yards rushing dating back to last season.

Holding an eighth straight rushing offense to under 100 yards will be a tall task given the Beavers feature the Pac-12′s top running back, junior Jermar Jefferson.

“That’s the starting point for our defensive planning, ‘OK, what do we have to do to stop the run, how are we going to control the gaps and what fronts do we need to employ,’” Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said earlier this week. “That’s even more so this week when you have a guy running the football like their guy is, so that’s our starting point.”

Jefferson leads the Pac-12 in rushing yards (675), rushing touchdowns (7), yards per carry (7.4) and rushing yards per game (168.8), where he is second nationally to Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson, who put up 409 yards and eight touchdowns last weekend vs. Kent State.

Jefferson’s numbers are made more impressive by the fact he is getting better with each passing week. The Harbor City, Calif. native is coming off 226 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries in a 41-38 come-from-behind win over then-No. 9 Oregon in Corvallis.

Behind Jefferson, that was Oregon State’s first win over a ranked program under third-year head coach Jonathan Smith, and all but guarantees the Pac-12 will not send a team to the College Football Playoff for the fourth season in a row.

USC is now the highest-ranked Pac-12 team in the CFP rankings at No. 20, while the Ducks have since fallen to No. 23.

“He’s got size, speed, quickness,” Whittingham said. “He’s a terrific player, he’s productive, he seems to have excellent vision, which all really good backs have. Their offensive line does a nice job. They’re not exceptionally big up front, they’re actually a little undersized by Pac-12 and Power Five standards, but you’d never know it by the way they play.

Jefferson has never faced Utah. He sat out last season’s 52-7 Utes win in Corvallis with an ankle injury, and the teams did not meet in 2018 when Jefferson was a freshman.

At 0-2 with three games to play, one growing subplot is that Utah needs to win Saturday, at Colorado on Dec. 11, and against a TBD opponent on Dec. 19 in order to be bowl-eligible.

The Division I Council in mid-October approved a Football Oversight Committee recommendation, eliminating the need for FBS teams to be .500 in order to be bowl-eligible. Despite the recommendation, the Pac-12 is sticking with the .500 rule for bowl eligibility.

In addition to Thursday’s announcement that the ESPN-operated Armed Forces Bowl will feature the Pac-12 vs. SEC, the Pac-12 now has bowl tie-ins with the Alamo, LA and Independence Bowls. Additionally, the winner of the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 18 is guaranteed a trip to the New Year’s Six.

“We haven’t even talked about that, as far as postseason,” Whittingham said. “We’re just trying to become as good a football team as we can at the moment, and we don’t want to get one step ahead of ourselves at all. All of our focus is channeled to this week. There has been no talk of anything but Oregon State, nor will there be. That’s where we’re at.”

Utah has not finished a season under .500 since going 5-7 in both 2012 and 2013, and it has not started a season 0-3 since 2000. That season under Ron McBride, the Utes lost to Arizona, at Cal, and vs. Washington State on its way to a 4-7 record.

UTAH VS. OREGON STATE

At Rice-Eccles Stadium


Kickoff » Saturday, 8:30 p.m.

TV » ESPN (Mike Couzens, play-by-play; Kirk Morrison, color; Ian Fitzsimmons, sideline)

Radio » ESPN700 AM, Sirius Ch. 108, XM Ch. 198

Records » Utah 0-2; Oregon State 2-2

Series » Oregon State leads, 11-10-1


About Utah » The Utes are coming off a 24-21 loss to Washington in which they led 21-0 at halftime. Jake Bentley was 16-for-23 for 144 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the loss … Utah has won four straight and five of seven against the Beavers since entering the Pac-12 in 2011, including last season’s 52-7 win in Corvallis … The Utes are allowing just 90.5 rushing yards per game and have held seven straight opponents under 100 yards rushing dating back to last season … Redshirt junior linebacker Devin Lloyd was named a semifinalist for the Butkus Award earlier this week. The Butkus Award, given annually to the nation’s top linebacker, will be announced on or before Dec. 22.

About Oregon State » The Beavers scored 22 fourth-quarter points, capped by Chance Nolan’s one-yard touchdown plunge with 33 seconds remaining, to beat then-No. 9 Oregon, 41-38, in Corvallis … Nolan will start at quarterback on Saturday night after Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith ruled Tristan Gebbia out on Wednesday. Gebbia suffered a hamstring injury on the play before Nolan scored, and could be done for the season … Jermar Jefferson ranks 24th nationally for total rushing yards (675), while averaging nearly 169 yards per game (second nationally) and 7.4 yards per rush (sixth) … Oregon State will play a regular-season game in the month of December for the first time since Dec. 1, 2012, a 77-3 home win over Nicholls State. The Beavers lost the Alamo Bowl that season to Texas to finish 9-4.

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