One of the biggest surprises in the Pac-12 this season has been Oregon State.

The Beavers were picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 North in the preseason media poll. But midway through the 2021 campaign, they are tied for first place with Oregon. 

Utes on the air

Utah (4-2, 3-0)

at Oregon State (4-2, 2-1)

Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MDT

Reser Stadium

TV: Pac-12 Network

Radio: ESPN 700

With four total wins, OSU is just two wins away from becoming bowl eligible. That’s a big deal in Corvallis, considering the Beavers haven’t had a winning season or been bowl-eligible since 2013. 

But OSU is coming off a 31-24 loss at Washington State on Sept. 9, which was followed by a bye week.

Saturday (5:30 p.m. MDT, Pac-12 Network), the Beavers are back home at Reser Stadium when they host Utah, which has won three consecutive games, is all alone in first place in the Pac-12 South, and is undefeated in conference play.

The Utes are seeking their sixth consecutive victory over Oregon State. 

“We’ve got a lot of challenges, starting this week with Oregon State,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “It’s a really good football team.” 

“It’s a great team we’re playing against,” said Utah quarterback Cam Rising. “I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

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Oregon State ranks No. 9 nationally in rushing offense, averaging 242.5 yards per game. B.J. Baylor averages 113 yards and has scored nine touchdowns, while Deshaun Fenwick averages 53 yards per game and has three TDs. 

The Utes struggled early in the season stopping the run but they’ve improved dramatically since entering Pac-12 play. 

“They’re running the heck out of the football, leading the Pac-12 by a considerable margin. They have two good backs who are very productive, Whittingham said. “It starts with their offensive line. They’re playing exceptional football. It’s something we’ve got to try to take care of — slow them down a little bit in the run game.” 

Whittingham added that OSU’s ground attack is similar in scheme to Arizona State’s. The Utes fell behind 21-7 in the first half against the Sun Devils before scoring 28 unanswered second-half points and limiting ASU to 97 yards of total offense over the final two quarters.

OSU quarterback Chance Nolan has completed 78 of 123 passes for 1,053 yards with nine touchdowns and five interceptions. 

“Their quarterback’s playing well,” Whittingham said. “They’re leading the conference in scoring and rushing and third-down conversions. When you run the football that well, it  lends itself to a lot of third-and-shorts, which they’re taking advantage of.”

Utah’s offense, meanwhile, is hitting its stride. Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith is impressed with the way Rising has been orchestrating the offense. 

Utah quarterback Cameron Rising passes during game against Washington State Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith has been impressed with how Rising has led the Utah attack. | George Frey, Associated Press

“He’s throwing it really accurately ... he’s athletic, he’s extended plays, and is managing that offense really well,” he said. “He’s shown really great decision-making these past few weeks and Utah is playing great football. You watch that second-half against ASU, and a lot of the momentum started with what he was leading on offense.”

That Oregon State is near the top of the Pac-12 North fits the kind of season it’s been so far in the conference, with surprising outcomes every week. 

“That’s the Pac-12. For a lot of years, it hasn’t had a clear-cut, dominant team that nobody can beat. It’s just a situation where you’ve got to be ready to play every week,” Whittingham said. “You’re going to see scores that surprise you every week in the Pac-12. You didn’t see that one coming or this one coming. It’s a situation where there’s a lot of balance and if you’re not ready to play, you’re going to get beat.”

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“I kinda expected it to be really competitive each week,” Smith said of the Pac-12. “One school can beat the other, and it hasn’t been surprising to see the way it’s played out so far. Each week, you couldn’t pinpoint who the best team is. Right now you’ve got a couple of teams playing better, but that doesn’t mean anything going into the next weekend.”

Smith knows if his team is going to continue to contend for a Pac-12 North title, it must continue to improve.

“We’re going to need to play better because our opponents will. Each game is new, but we’ve got to improve in all three phases,” he said. “Around this league, every game is going to come down to the fourth quarter and we’ve got to be playing our best at the end of games.”

While Utah won at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the first time ever on Oct. 9, Oregon State won there for the first time in 61 years back on Sept. 25, registering a 45-27 victory.  

Whittingham is wary of playing at Reser Stadium. 

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“It’s on the road and it’s a tough place up there in Corvallis,” he said. “You typically have a boisterous crowd. It’s an environment that is one of toughest places to play in the Pac-12.”  

The last time Utah traveled to Corvallis in 2019, it raced out to a 35-0 lead in the first half and ended up winning 52-7. 

“That game was not typical of a game you have in Corvallis,” Whittingham said. “We’re expecting a hard-fought battle.”

Smith is hoping for a big, and loud, crowd at Reser Stadium on Saturday. 

“It starts with our student section and they’ve been awesome all year long. You like to have a home crowd that impacts a game and makes it hard on your opponent,” he said. “Also, our players continue to feed off the energy from the crowd so we’re hoping to have a packed house. But we’ve got to play four quarters of good football to keep the crowd going.”