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In this week's edition of "The Pac-12 is really, really hard," Utah must beat a 4-1 team with a potential NFL quarterback because this is likely one of its best remaining chances for victory.
At No. 20, Utah ranks as high as it has in the AP poll since December 2010, but nonetheless is favored by just three in Corvallis on Thursday night.
One good reason: Utah hasn't beaten Oregon State in Corvallis since 1991, when current cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah recorded 12 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles. Another: Sean Mannion carved up Utah's secondary for 443 yards and five touchdowns in a 51-48 overtime victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium last season.
"We can't come out flat," said junior linebacker Jared Norris. "That was one big thing against Arizona last year [losing 35-24 after beating No. 5 Stanford] ... coming out flat, off the big-win high not so much not ready to play, but just not having the same juice."
Add juice, and mix in another shot at Mannion.
But it must be said that Mannion hasn't been quite the same without New Orleans Saints wideout Brandin Cooks, who gashed the Utes for 210 yards and was "the best receiver in the Pac-12 last year," said Kyle Whittingham on Monday.
The towering senior has passed for just 1,304 yards and five touchdowns, compared to 2,018 and 21 scores through five games last season.
He hasn't exactly been bad. Last time out, his fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Caleb Smith kept the pressure on the host Buffaloes in a 36-31 barn-burner of a win in Boulder.
"He's still a great leader for them in doing things they have to do to win games, which they've done," Whittingham said.
And while he's not one of the many vaunted dual-threat quarterbacks in the Pac-12, Washington State's Connor Halliday showed two weeks ago that it's not out of the realm of possibility for a pocket passer to have success against Utah's 2014 defense especially if the defense is without senior free safety Tevin Carter, whose status is uncertain.
"I see [Mannion] as the same guy as last year," said senior cornerback Eric Rowe. "Chucks it deep. He's very accurate. And even though he's not mobile people are like 'Oh, he's just a pocket passer' he's a deadly pocket passer."
From the Beaver offense, Utah expects the hallmarks of Mike Riley's teams: max protection, two- and three-man routes, and a healthy dose of leading rushers Terron Ward (343 yards on 59 carries) and Storm Woods (342 yards on 59 carries).
Rowe and sophomore Dominique Hatfield will find themselves on an island, and Utah's defensive line will need to maintain its outstanding pass rush (the Utes lead the nation with 28 sacks) to alleviate some of the pressure.
On the other side of the ball, either Kendal Thompson or Travis Wilson will face a stingy pass defense, Whittingham said. That scheme compels Oregon State to find corners "who can hold up in one-on-one situations, which they have had and they do have this year," he said.
Ironically, the fact that Wilson rushed for 142 yards and three touchdowns against the Beavers may argue in the favor of Thompson, who has proven more adept at running the read-option through five games.
Whoever Utah's coaches opt for will face the nation's No. 10 passing efficiency defense on its home turf as a tune-up for, starting next Saturday, five consecutive top-25 opponents.
Utah at Oregon State
P Thursday, 8 p.m.
TV » Fox Sports 2, KMYU