Oregon State looks to keep Utah winless in Pac-12 play

SALT LAKE CITY — By the end of October the past four seasons, Utah had already locked up a bowl bid. It was just a matter of how grand it would be.

Not this year.

The Utes (3-4, 0-4) instead find themselves trying to avoid going winless in the first year of Pac-12 Conference play.

"I don't want to be 'those guys,'" defensive end Dave Kruger said. "We need to get our Pac-12 win."

It won't be easy, not even with once-hapless Oregon State coming to town today in Utah's annual "Blackout" game.

The Beavers (2-5, 2-2) are not the same team that opened the season with an overtime loss at home to Sacramento State, an FCS team. They have won two of their last three, including last week's 44-21 win at Washington State in which freshman quarterback Sean Mannion tossed four TD passes and the Beavers rolled up 551 yards on offense.

"We're catching them right when they're starting to feel good about themselves," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

The Utes, meanwhile, are about as low as they can go — having done a 180 since beating up in-state rival BYU, 54-10, six weeks ago.

They have a starting quarterback in Jon Hays who wasn't recruited by any other major college last year, and who already has tossed seven interceptions and lost a couple of fumbles since replacing the injured Jordan Wynn a month ago.

Utah also has been outscored 123-52 in four Pac-12 games and managed just 178 net yards in last week's 34-10 loss at Cal.

Whittingham gave an honest evaluation when asked what was up with his offense.

"Nothing," he said, a sentiment he reiterated this week. "We couldn't make first downs. We couldn't run the ball. We couldn't throw the ball."

Add in a failure to protect the passer (21 sacks this season) and hang onto the football and the picture is more complete.

The bright spot on offense had been the rushing attack led by John White, who ranks second in the Pac-12 with a 101.4-yard average.

But he managed just 39 yards on 15 carries last week. The Utes had 13 net yards rushing when the five sacks are factored in.

"We've got to figure out a way to throw when they load the box up, otherwise it's going to be more of the same," Whittingham said.

Whittingham hasn't left himself with many options after failing to land a top backup QB in recruiting.

The team decided to stick with its plans to redshirt Tyler Shreve, leaving sophomore Griff Robles as the backup even though he was practicing at linebacker until recently. Behind him is 18-year-old freshman Adam Schulz, who walked on this fall.

That leaves Hays, a feisty competitor whose effort to extend plays has contributed to his costly mistakes — not a good thing considering Oregon State has forced 13 turnovers in the last four games.

"He's trying to do too much," Whittingham said. "We've got to get that coached out of him because it's going to do more damage than it does good most of the time."

On the flip side, Mannion appears to have found his groove and is on pace to pass for a freshman-record 3,367 yards.

"It was a process," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said of having faith in Mannion, who was named Pac-12 offensive player of the week. "I saw it happen in spring practice and then again in fall camp. It just looked like, 'Hey, we should play this guy.'"

It will be up to Whittingham's D to stop him, along with talented receiver Markus Wheaton (three 100-yard games this season) and running back Malcolm Agnew, who would lead the Pac-12 (with a 125-yard average) if he had played enough games to qualify.

Whittingham tossed aside any suggestions Utah's defense has become disheartened with the offense so dreadful.

"If you don't want to lose, then shut them out or shut your mouth," Whittingham said. "That's the way we operate here. We have big expectations for our defense here. Always have. Always will."

The Utes have a few other things going for them besides a season-ending stretch of five straight Pac-12 games against opponents with losing records, including a finale against Colorado (1-7, 0-4) the day after Thanksgiving.

First, they should get leading receiver DeVonte Christopher back after he missed consecutive games with an ankle injury.

Then, consider Oregon State is the nation's most penalized team at 77.9 yards a game.

And add in the fact the Beavers lost 38-28 to a BYU team Utah beat.

Senior right tackle Tony Bergstrom promised the Utes won't pack it in.

"It's hard, but what are you going to do but fight your way out," he said. "Look around the team. Guys are hurting and that's a good sign because competitive guys are the ones who take a loss really hard. It's when you start brushing off a loss that you have to start worrying."

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