This Saturday, the Oregon State Beavers take their 1-1 record on the road as they prepare for a Utah team that is riding high after a 2-0 start. Even though we are only through two weeks of the college football season, many view this game as a must-win for Oregon State if they hope to make any noise in the PAC-12 this year. With a convincing win, the Beavers would sit at 2-1 with an upcoming game against a winless San Diego State team that has looked every bit of awful up to this point. A 2-1 mark, with a very solid chance at moving to 3-1, might be the momentum starter that Oregon State needs in order to to turn the season around and make a season-opening loss to FCS Eastern Washington nothing more than a disappointment that fueled the fires of another successful season. On the other hand, a loss to Utah would plant the Beavers among the bottom feeders of a very tough PAC-12 conference.
As if the challenge of a hostile road game against a resurgent Utah team were not enough, Oregon State’s offensive line has been decimated by injury in these early weeks. Against Hawaii, right guard Roman Sapolu injured his foot and is out for the season. Only a few plays later, right tackle Grant Enger tore his MCL and will miss at least two weeks. In addition, four substitute linemen will not be available for various reasons. Outside of the patched-together starting five offensive linemen, there are only two substitutes available – one a true freshman that the Beavers had hoped to redshirt and the other a walk-on.
Oregon State has also not shown much ability to run the ball through their first two games, as they have averaged only 81 yards per game. It may be difficult to reach that mark against Utah with the offensive line issues. With Utah’s run defense allowing a respectable 121 rushing yards per contest, the yards will have to come through the air. If Oregon State hopes to return to Corvallis with a win, Sean Mannion must be lights out for a third game in a row. After OSU’s first two games, he has completed over 79% of his passes with an average of 397 yards per game. Most of his targets have been to Brandin Cooks, who has been unbelievable despite the lack of a legitimate second option to keep defenses honest. Will the Beavers be able to score consistently against a PAC-12 opponent when their only effective option is so obvious?
The injury bug has also affected the defense. Against Hawaii, linebacker Michael Doctor injured his foot severely enough that surgery to install a metal plate to aid in healing was needed the morning after the game. A defense that has already been ridiculed by the nation (after the shockingly sloppy performance against Eastern Washington) now must prove that they have figured out how to stop a mobile quarterback. Utah’s Travis Wilson has shown tremendous improvement from last season, to the point that Utah is looking to give him five to six designed runs per game. If the Beavers can contain Wilson and force him to put the ball in the air, the Beavers secondary that features three returning starters from last year’s team may be able to create some turnovers and swing the game in favor of Oregon State.
Looking at the schedule after this week’s game at Utah, OSU travels to San Diego State and then takes on Colorado at home before they see the healing calm of a bye week. If they can get something cooking over the course of these next three games, that bye week could serve as a brief rest for a very confident 4-1 team with appealing trips to Washington State and California to follow. Of course, Oregon State is a team that cannot afford to look ahead the way that fans do, Eastern Washington proved that.
Remember, their schedule is extremely difficult on the back end with Stanford, Arizona State, Washington, and Oregon as four of the last five opponents (The fifth is USC, which no longer seems as daunting as it did two weeks ago). If the wins don’t come early, it will be hard to find enough wins late in the season to get bowl eligible. The injury situation presents an extreme challenge, but football is a grown man’s game. If a starter goes down with an injury, there should be no excuses; “Next man up!” and press on. Coach Mike Riley is loved by many Beaver Believers, but after his seat became very warm during Oregon State’s 3-9 campaign in 2011, I wonder if even he could handle the heat of another disastrous season, regardless of the reason.