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September 12, 2013Utah and Pac-12 conference openers haven't exactly been suave dancing partners during the school's first two years in the league.
Both in 2011 and 2012 the Utes started 0-4 in league play before finally taking the first difficult step on the long climb back to respectability. Beginning poorly out of the chute against Pac-12 competition last season cost Utah a bowl berth as they finished 5-7 overall.
With Oregon State preparing for the journey to Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City (7 p.m. PT, Fox Sports 1), Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is eyeing a better start against Pac-12 opponents this season in the wake of a pair of nonconference victories over emotional Beehive State rivals Utah State and Weber State.
"It would be great to get started on the right foot," Whittingham said earlier this week. "That's something we haven't done in the first two years in the conference. Right now, we've got a little bit of momentum on our side with two victories. It should be a great game."
Besides serving as the conference lidlifter for both teams, Saturday's clash between the Beavers and Utes culminates Homecoming activities on the Utah campus. This is the earliest Homecoming game in Utes history.
Whittingham shares the same offensive philosophy with Mike Riley - balance is best. Two weeks ago, Utah ran the football 44 times for 169 yards against Utah State, while throwing 28 times.
Oregon State is last in the Pac-12 in passing defense after two weeks, nonetheless snowballing the number of passes simply to exploit that lowly ranking (and supposed weakness) would pull the Utes out of character, a risk Whittingham is reluctant to take.
"We try to be balanced offensively with the run and the pass. That's not going to change," Whittingham said. "They only gave up about 250 total yards (actually 239) to Hawaii, so we have to be able to run the ball effectively to have our offense where we want it to be. There won't be any more emphasis on the pass this week than in weeks past. But we'll see what happens."
Utah lost John White, one of the Pac-12's best running backs a year ago with 1,041 yards on 218 carries (4.8 yards per rush), and replaced him with a trio of ball carriers led by Kelvin York (53 yards) and James Poole (91 yards) with third-teamer Lucky Radley (111 yards, all v. Weber State) in reserve.
The Utes gained 338 yards on the ground en route to a crushing 70-7 victory over Weber State last Saturday, but Whittingham, currently in his ninth season as Utah coach, recognizes handling the Beavers defensive front seven presents a far more daunting challenge.
"We took a step forward in that regard with some explosive runs, but the degree of difficulty gets higher this week," Whittingham said. "The Oregon State front seven has historically been pretty good. If we can rush for 300 (yards) this week, our chances of winning are very good."
Six-foot-7, 240-pound dual threat quarterback Travis Wilson, thrown into the fire as a true freshman last season, has thrown for 566 yards (31-of-47, 66 percent completion rate) and run for 102 yards on 11 carries, giving him 668 yards of total offense in the first two games.
Wilson is third nationally in passing yards per completion (18.26) and eighth in passing efficiency (202.2 rating).
"He's come a long ways since his first start last season against UCLA," Whittingham said. "He's been on a steady incline ever since that game. He's been exceptional in the first two games. He's been more effective running the ball this year, but I don't think he is any more mobile. He's the same kid. He's more confident and has better command of the offense. He has just started to settle in. He is still a true sophomore, so there is still somewhat of a learning curve. He's been a great leader for us."
Whittingham shrugged off OSU's subpar defensive performance in the season-opening loss to Eastern Washington by pointing to the Beavers' significantly improved showing against Hawaii last Saturday in which they allowed 162 percent fewer total yards than the previous week.
"They played much better against Hawaii than against Eastern. They held Hawaii to less than half the yardage that Eastern got and far fewer points," Whittingham said. "But a couple of games are not enough to really get a good feel and a good barometer on what your opponent has got. We're going to go in with a plan, using last year's game as a blue print as far as schematics. Oregon State's defense definitely shored up this past week over week one."
Defensively, Utah is on the clock as the latest team searching for a way to contain OSU wide receiver Brandin Cooks. But the Beavers' first two opponents had little success stopping him as the junior from Stockton, Calif. registered 20 receptions for 288 yards (14.4 yards per catch) in eight quarters of football.
Applying consistent pressure on red-hot quarterback Sean Mannion is critical, Whittingham contended. Mannion has completed an astounding 79.1 percent (68-of-86) of his passes for seven touchdowns with only one interception in the opening two games.
"We have to get a pass rush, that's where it all starts," Whittingham said. "We can't let him get comfortable back there and have all day to throw the football. Because when he does, he is very effective. They have a lot of max protect schemes with three man routes and keep the tight end in to block. We have to be able to get pressure even when they're protecting with seven (players)."
A year ago, Utah held the Oregon State offense to 226 total yards. However, four costly turnovers, including two inside the Utes' 20-yard line that led directly to back-to-back short Beaver touchdown drives, catapulted OSU to a 21-7 victory at Reser Stadium.
Even though Utah did not join the Pac-12 until 2011, Saturday's meeting in Salt Lake City marks the fifth time in seven years Oregon State has squared off with the Utes with each team winning twice since 2007.
"Mike Riley has done a great job with that program," Whittingham said. "They had a tremendous year last year. Like everyone else, they're trying to figure out who they are this year. It's been a rivalry, in a sense, with some good games."
Coming into the season, Whittingham expressed concerns about the Utes secondary, which features two seniors and two juniors plus a nickel back. Currently, the Utes are ninth in the Pac-12 in passing defense, allowing 225 yards per game.
"I'm still concerned," said Whittingham, celebrating his 20th anniversary on the Utah coaching staff. "We've had some bright spots in the first two weeks with the secondary, but we've also had some not so good things happen back there. It's a work in progress with our techniques and fundamentals and playing the coverages as they're designed to be played. It needs to be improved upon week in and week out."
Utah faced a quarterback comparable to Mannion two weeks ago in the season opener in Utah State's Chuckie Keeton, who was 31-of-40 passing for 314 yards and two touchdowns against the Utes in an exciting back-and-forth intrastate rivalry game won by Utah, 30-26, on a pair of late field goals.
Will Mannion post equivalent numbers to Keeton?
"Facing Chuckie was a big test for our defense and although Mannion doesn't run the football like Chuckie does, he has a big arm," Whittingham said. "The experience we have from trying to defend Utah State's offense will be a plus in this game, although it's two different styles of offenses. Still, the throw game for both teams is very good."
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