Oregon State’s offensive line and defensive front seven have shown plenty of improvement over the past season.
Both will likely face their toughest task of the season against a No. 15 Utah team that prides itself on running the football on offense and stopping it on defense.
Utah (4-1, 1-1) enter Saturday’s 5 p.m. Pac-12 game inside Reser Stadium allowing just 53.8 yards per game on the ground, tops in the conference, while rushing for a conference-best 223.4 on offense.
The Beavers (2-3, 1-1) are rushing for 203 yards per game, third behind Utah and Arizona (221), but are giving up conference worst 195.6, still a marked improvement from last season (281.8).
So the key to a victory for both teams could come down to who wins the line of scrimmage battle.
“I think often times in football games it starts up front on both sides,” Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith said. “They’ve been dominant on run defense, by far leading the league in stopping the run, and they’ve been doing that for a long time.
“We’ve been able to run the ball, too, so we’re not going to shy away from trying to do some of that knowing it’s going to be tough at times.”
Smith and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren agree that sometimes a three- or four-yard gain on a rush attempt will be a positive.
“They’re a super-talented defense and extremely physical and rally to the ball, don’t give up a lot of big runs,” Lindgren said. “So as a play caller you’ve got to stay patient with it and understand that maybe three-, four-, five-yard runs are good and you’re not always going to hit the huge ones. Maybe those come later in the game.”
If anyone can hit a big gainer it’s the Beavers’ Artavis Pierce. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in the last two games getting the start for the injured Jermar Jefferson.
He rushed for 119 yards and a touchdown last week at UCLA and had 141 yards and two scores against Stanford.
Even if the Beavers aren’t able to gain traction early in the run game, Lindgren said the Beavers need to remain patient.
“That is something we’ve talked about as a staff is we need to try to continue to stay balanced and establish our run game and that will help open up other things for us,” he said.
The Beavers are hopeful Jefferson can make an impact as well but he is still working to get up to full speed with a foot injury he suffered at Hawaii Week 2.
“It’s just day by day and we’ll see,” Lindgren said Tuesday. “I feel like he’s made progress in the last couple weeks and hopefully we can get him back to where he’s closer to 100 percent and he’s able to practice more during the week.”
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In order for Pierce or any other running back to have success, the offensive line will need to open some holes. Sophomore right tackle Brandon Kipper is confident the line will find a way.
“I think this week it’s about finding the things they don’t do particularly well and making sure that we do them great and capitalizing on it,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve got to do anything special, I think we’ve just got to put a good scheme together, which I know the coaches will do, and we’ve got to execute it.
“At the end of the day we know the plays like the back of our hands so go out there, play physical and finish every play because they don’t take reps off, they don’t take half a play off. They’re going to chase down the ball so you’ve got to be chasing right there with them.”
On the other side of the ball, the Beavers will have to contend with the Utes’ strong rushing attack.
“They’ve got a massive offensive line and they’re going to try to knock you off the ball and let the running back build up a head of steam,” defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar said.
“As far as the experience and physicality of their offensive line is going to bet the best that we’ve seen so far, especially from a run-blocking standpoint.”
Utah has five players with at least 22 carries this season, led by Zack Moss, who missed the last game against Washington State but is expected to be available this week.
Moss leads the way with 98.3 yards per game and is averaging 6.2 yards per attempt. He needs 176 yards to set the program’s career rushing record.
“He’s big, strong and fast,” linebackers coach Trent Bray said of Moss, “so that makes it a challenge. It’s going to be getting multiple hats to him. We’ve got to be really good with our technique and running through and wrapping him up. Guys have got to get to the ball, we have to try to eliminate one-on-one tackles on him.”
Quarterback Tyler Huntley has 190 yards (after factoring in lost yardage for sacks) and 4.6 per attempt, and will provide a test for the defense with his legs as well as his arm.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge but we’ve got to stick our heads up … rush and coverage have got to go together,” linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr. said. “I feel like we’ve just got to be able to contain this man because he can run for sure, he’s better than the dude last week. So we’ve just got to see what happens.”
Luton on Maxwell Award watch list
Oregon State senior quarterback Jake Luton has been named to the Maxwell Award watch list, the Maxwell Football Club announced Wednesday. The award is given annually to the nation's most outstanding collegiate football player.
Luton, from Marysville, Wash., threw for a career-best five touchdowns and completed 18-of-26 pass attempts for 285 yards in the Beavers' 48-31 win over UCLA on Saturday night. He also ran for a 19-yard score late in the fourth quarter, becoming the first Oregon State player to account for six touchdowns in a game since Sean Mannion versus Colorado in 2013.