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The words rang in their ears as the Utes stormed out into the Rose Bowl. The words were Kyle Whittingham's.
"Time to go slay us another giant, baby!" he had said, as they gathered their hands in a huddle. "Time to go slay us another giant!"
The role of underdog is an intoxicating one for this Utah football team that is coming off two losing seasons, was picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12 South and dropped its first league game against a team many expected it to beat. The Utes' natural rallying point is around low expectations, perceived long odds, and slinging stones at giants.
But in the Pac-12, all of the contenders have been exposed, to one degree or another. And looking around the league, the No. 20 Utes (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) loom just as tall as almost any remaining opponent they face. When even the elite teams have one conference loss, anybody has a chance to ascend in the chaos.
If Utah is to be that team, it starts this Thursday at Oregon State (4-1, 1-1). The Beavers are a team much like the Utes, flashing some inconsistency week-to-week. But in winning a game they're favored to win on the road, the Utes can show they're growing up- that they're less like giant-slayers, and more like giants.
"This conference is very rigorous and there's a lot of talent in this league, but I think we're starting make progress," Whittingham said earlier this week. "It's still too early to make determinations on where we are. We just gotta come out and play our A-game against Oregon State. That's our whole focus."
There has been another, subtle focus to this 10-day layover: Stanford. Not the Stanford team of this season, but last.
When Utah trumped the No. 6 Cardinal on its home field last October a year and only a few days ago, actually the program was humming with momentum, poised to make The Leap fans have dreamed about since 2011. A follow-up loss to Arizona emptied the air out of the Utes, and thanks to injuries and a series of underwhelming performances, they never truly recovered.
While Oregon State's 51-48 overtime win over the Utes last year drives the team this week, so does that haunting memory of opportunity lost, and daylight unseized.
"Coach Whitt's been hitting on that a lot lately," defensive end Hunter Dimick said of Utah's sputtering 2013 campaign. "We came out strong, we put ourselves in a good situation against Stanford, then came out flat for five games. Our big thing is to come out strong."
At midseason, Utah knows what it can do well: flatten quarterbacks, slow running games, pick off passes, take care of the ball, run it with power and make big plays on special teams.
But then there's the thing Utah hasn't done well, since the Michigan game, anyway: pass the ball. While it seems like every Pac-12 team has a quarterback who has thrown for 400 yards, Utah is mired in the quarterback battle coaches thought had been settled in fall between Travis Wilson and Kendal Thompson. Only the Utes know for sure who will start Thursday, but it's not just the guy under center who faces scrutiny. The offensive line returned four players who started games last year, but pass protection has been spotty. And, of course, the drops by a receiving corps that was heralded before the season.
Even if a breakout season by running back Devontae Booker continues this week, senior wideout Dres Anderson knows that can't carry the offense forever.
"We always have pressure no matter what's going on," Dres Anderson said. "We can't just be hoping the rush game will get us through the whole game, because obviously teams are going to stack the box. ... We gotta make sure we're doing things on the outside to support our offense."
As linebacker Jared Norris said, every man knows his responsibilities for Utah's success, his "one-eleventh." The Utes know where they're strong, and where they have to round into form in order to be a serious contender in the Pac-12.
They hope this is the game where it comes together, under the lights at Reser Stadium. Utah wants to show it can be a giant, too.
There's something about that thought, Dimick said, that has a pleasant ring to it.
No. 20 Utah at Oregon State
O At Reser Stadium, Corvallis, Ore.
Thursday, 8 p.m.
TV • Fox Sports 2, KMYU, Pac-12 Networks National, Oregon, Mountain and Arizona
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah (4-1, 1-1); Oregon State (4-1, 1-1)
Series history • OSU leads 11-6-1