Utah football succumbed to Oregon State’s rushing attack in 2021. Is it time for payback?

Utes’ lone Pac-12 loss last season came at Oregon State, which ran for 260 yards.

(Hunter Dyke | Utah Athletics) Utah running backs Tavion Thomas and Jaylon Glover talk during Utah Utes football camp in Salt Lake City on Aug. 09, 2022.

A sixth-year senior defensive end, Gabe Reid has been around the Pac-12 football block once or twice, so he knows what a quality defense is supposed to look like.

It has apparently taken just four games with the 12th-ranked Utes (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) for the Stanford transfer to make up his mind as to what the University of Utah’s defense could be over the next three months.

“I think there’s no limit, we have the potential to be the best defense in the country,” said Reid, who had two sacks at Arizona State last week as part of a one-sided 34-13 Utah win. “I don’t throw that out there just to say that. We have so many weapons, so many dudes, and I think this past week against Arizona State, we held them to six rushing yards. I think that’s an indication, regardless of who you’re playing, when you can hold a team to that, that’s a big deal.”

As Utah prepares to host Oregon State on Saturday afternoon at Rice-Eccles Stadium (Noon, Pac-12 Networks), its rushing defense enters the weekend ranked No. 4 in the Pac-12 and 39th nationally at 111.2 yards per game. That statistic, though, is raw and in need of context.

The Utes missed 27 tackles in giving up 283 rushing yards in a season-opening loss at the University of Florida. They then held Southern Utah to 43 rushing yards and San Diego State to 113 before giving up just 6 at Sun Devil Stadium.

The large disparity in opponents Utah has faced to this point has to be part of this storyline, but ultimately, the opener at The Swamp appears to be an aberration. If one doesn’t believe that, even after the Utes held San Diego State to roughly half its normal rushing output and Arizona State to minus-3 yards after three quarters, Saturday against the Beavers (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) should provide some more clarity.

Oregon State ranks fifth in the Pac-12 and 50th nationally in rushing at 180.8 yards per game. It is coming off 153 rushing yards last week against a USC team that, while 4-0 and ranked No. 6 in the latest AP Top 25, is yielding 171 yards per game on the ground.

“I think we’re adjusting well,” said defensive line coach Lewis Powell, whose projected starting four doesn’t include anyone older than a sophomore in terms of eligibility. “The young guys learned a lot throughout the first four games. They understand the opponent is good and physical this week, probably one of the best teams in our conference. We’re excited for the challenge.

“Guys on our defense just understand their role, how they fit in our scheme, and what they need to do. It was exciting for them to get better every week. Hopefully, we continue to make progress and see good improvement in our fundamentals, technique and understanding of our scheme.”

One well-documented subplot here is last season’s Utah-Oregon State game, a 42-34 Beavers win in Corvallis in which they ran roughshod over the Pac-12′s No. 1-ranked rushing defense to the tune of 260 yards.

That game stood as the lone hiccup for the Utes, who finished 8-1 against the Pac-12, won the Pac-12 championship game for the first time and advanced to the Rose Bowl.

In spite of giving up all those rushing yards, Utah still had plenty of chances to win that game. Two different drives, one in the second quarter and another in the fourth, ended at the Oregon State 2-yard line with no points. The Beavers returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in the third quarter, then had another punt return for a score called back due to a penalty.

“These guys got us last year, they outplayed us,” Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham said. “Offense played well, but we didn’t do a whole lot on defense, a whole lot on special teams. Hopefully, we’ll play better this year, but they’re an excellent football team. They played SC right down to the wire, they’re well-coached, they’re tough, they’re physical, there are a lot of similarities between the two programs.”

“They’re so balanced. You can’t load up for the run or load up for the pass because they do both equally well. They have a great play-action boot game they get a lot of big plays off of, their running backs run hard, their offensive line is coached as well as anyone in the country, and their defense, they’re scrappy.”

— Tribune reporter Alex Vejar contributed to this story.