After three straight losses - tough losses to good WAC teams - the Utah State football team will try to stop the bleeding today when it takes on Oregon State at 2 p.m. MDT at Parker Stadium.
And it won't be easy.While the Beavers have been the Pac-10 doormat for several years, this team isn't acting like typical Oregon State teams of the past.
Under first-year coach Mike Riley, the Beavers are off to a 2-2 start, with both losses coming by three points, to Arizona State and Stanford, both of whom were nationally ranked at the time. A win over the Aggies would give the Beavers their first sweep of non-conference opponents since 1957.
Meanwhile, the Aggies are trying to win three non-league games in a season for the first time in 15 years and may have to do it without starting quarterback Matt Sauk, who suffered a severely sprained ankle last week against BYU. Sauk practiced Wednesday and Thursday but hadn't been cleared to play as of Friday.
The fact that Parker Stadium has artificial turf will work against Sauk, because that kind of surface is less forgiving of tender ankles than grass, according to USU trainer Dale Mildenberger. If Sauk isn't able to go, redshirt freshman Brian Benza will take over the quarterbacking duties.
"He's played pretty well for us," said USU coach John L. Smith of Benza. "We'll just have to rally around Brian. We'll adapt and keep it simple."
No matter who starts at quarterback, the ability to move against OSU's stingy defense is the Aggies' biggest worry. The Beavers are only allowing 14.8 points per game (21st nationally) and just 322.8 yards per game (42nd nationally). Last week, in a 26-12 win over San Jose State, the OSU defense produced a safety and two touchdowns, on an interception return by Basheer Elahee and a 59-yard fumble return by Brian Rogers.
The Ags are more confident in stopping the Beavers' offense, which has been inconsistent this year. Quarterback Tim Alexander is averaging 224 yards per game passing and has rushed for 183 yards in four games. DeShawn Williams started the year as a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation's top running back, but he suffered a knee injury last week, which will keep him out. Ricky Walker, who has 165 yards on the year, will try to pick up the slack.
"There comes a time when we've got to pull it together and get it done. We've got to get some wins," said Smith. "They're a good football team. We're going to have to go in there and play well to win."
AGNOTES: It's old home week for former Utah State athletic director Dave Kragthorpe, who spent five years as the Oregon State coach. He's among a group of nearly 100 Aggie boosters making the trip to Oregon . . . OSU is celebrating its homecoming, and a crowd of 25,000 is expected at Parker Stadium . . . This is the fifth straight home game for the Beavers, who have yet to go on the road . . . The Aggies and Beavers have met just once before, way back in 1904 when the Beavers won handily . . . Next Saturday, the Aggies begin their Big West schedule with a home game against New Mexico State.