Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Position breakdown: Utah D vs. Oregon State O

James Durrant breaks down what to expect when the Utah defense is on the field Saturday.

Utah (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) travels to Corvallis to take on the Oregon State Beavers (2-3, 1-1). Weather will be a major factor in the game, with heavy rain and high winds forecast for the area.

If the weather is as poor as expected, throw out scouting reports and game plans, as it will be difficult to throw and kick the football. Ball carriers will have a hard time making cuts or even turning upfield on outside runs. As Notre Dame found out against NC State last week, even getting off good snaps can be an adventure (there was a play where Notre Dame’s center had his hands slip off the ball as he began to snap it). That game ended with a 10-3 score and the only touchdown coming off a blocked punt. Utah’s game against Oregon State could feature similarly unproductive offenses as playcalling is forced to become predictable.

All that being said, here’s a look at the Oregon State offense:

The Beavers on offense will line up in a variety of shotgun and under-center alignments with multiple personnel packages, from four receivers to two backs and a tight end. At times they will also essentially play with six offensive linemen, bringing in 327-pound defensive tackle Elu Aydon to play tight end.

In the running game, Oregon State will run the ball between the tackles with the running backs while running outside with receivers on jet sweeps. They also pull offensive linemen on a high percentage of their runs and play-action passes, trying to gain a gap and out-flank the defense.

In the passing game, the Beavers try to stretch the field, but have been mostly unsuccessful this season, completing just 23 passes of more than 10 yards, nine of more than 20. Instead they have been forced to rely on short passes to playmaking receivers. Oregon State is one of the more unproductive passing offenses in the country, ranking 117th out of 128 schools at 155 yards per game and 127th with 4.9 yards per attempt.

For Oregon State to be successful this week, the offensive line will have to play as well as they did against Cal, opening up huge holes for ball carriers en route to 474 and 6 touchdowns on the ground. That game alone nearly matched Oregon State’s rushing production in their first four games of the season (557 yards and 5 touchdowns). The Beavers saw some players return from injury and a unit pull together against a team that has a hard time stopping the run.

Center Gavin Andrews is the leader of a line that plays better than the individual parts. Center is Andrews’ fourth position on the line as he has also started at both tackle spots and right guard. He is a solid player who can hold his own one-on-one and is used quite a bit to pull and lead on outside running plays. Left tackle Sean Harlow is a good athlete and an underrated tackle. He does a good job moving his feet in pass protection and can drive edge defenders in the run game. Right guard Dustin Stanton is the third senior starter on the line, and is a good athlete for the position. The former tight end and right tackle can pull and lead and generally does a good job in space. He can struggle with strength and has a hard time one-on-one.

Redshirt freshman Blake Brandel starts at right tackle. His inexperience shows, as does his lack of strength. He generally moves well, though there are times when his technique breaks down and he gets caught leaning the wrong way. He has a difficult time handling stronger players and gets beat inside far too often. Fred Lauina is expected to return to the lineup at left guard after missing the Cal game. Freshman Gus Lavaka has been practicing with the starters after a good game against Cal. Lavaka doesn’t move well, but he has great strength. When he does get his hands on defenders, they move. The offensive line played with a bit of an attitude against Cal, sometimes bordering on dirty play as they picked off the pile and got in a few shots after the whistle.

Ryan Nall is the best running back on the team and might be a case of an underrated player becoming overrated. Nall is a good running back and good athlete, but he is more Matt Asiata or Mike Alstott than Eddie George. He struggled with production all season before breaking out and running for a career-high 221 yards against Cal; he had 211 yards on the season before the outburst. He is a good between-the-tackles runner and can run through defenders who don’t square him up. At 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds, Nall has great size and runs with good leverage for his tall frame. He is also questionable for this game with a foot injury, though it would not be surprising to see him play. Artavis Pierce is the top backup to Nall. Pierce is quick, fast and explosive, a good complement to Nall. Pierce has good size at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds. He isn’t the most instinctive runner, but he can wiggle around defenders and can explode through the hole, getting to the second level before defenders can react. He has 202 yards and a touchdown on 39 carries this season. Tim Cook is the third back and is built more like Nall, checking in at 6-foot-1 and 233 pounds. The former junior college transfer has 8 career carries, all this season. Oregon State will also get freshman receiver Paul Lucas involved in the run game. He has 50 yards on 14 carries.

Oregon State has some talent at receiver, though the production has been lacking this season. Victor Bolden is a speedster who is dangerous on jet sweeps and can get over the top of any corner. He has struggled this season, catching 19 passes for 172 yards and a touchdown, though he has added 161 yards and a score on 10 carries. Jordan Villamin looks the part, at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds to go along with good speed. He looked like an emerging star as a freshman and sophomore, but he has failed to make an impact this season, catching 8 passes for 49 yards. Former starting quarterback Seth Collins is the leading receiver, catching 24 passes for 268 yards. Collins has good size at 6-foot-3 and 188 pounds. He is more quick than fast, and he has made a quick transition to receiver.

Oregon State doesn’t feature the tight ends in the passing game and top tight ends Noah Togiai and Ricky Ortiz are injured. Tuli Wily-Matagi is listed as the starting tight end, with a pair of defensive tackles listed as the backups.

One of the reasons for the receivers failing to live up to expectations has been the play of Darell Garretson at quarterback. The Utah State transfer has not thrown the football well this season, completing 55 percent of his passes for 593 yards with 3 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He has been unable to throw with any accuracy down the field and has problems consistently completing short passes. He hasn’t shown much in the way of moving through progressions and can get rattled in the pocket. He throws into coverage and will try to force the football rather than throw it away or take a sack. Garretson is a better athlete than he is give credit for and can be effective in the option game when he makes the proper reads. He is a better runner when scrambling than on designed runs. True freshman Conor Blount is the backup. He has completed 19 of 34 passes for 183 yards and 2 interceptions.

On defense, Utah will need to play the run first and commit 7-8 defenders to the box. Defensive ends Hunter Dimick and Pita Taumoepenu can’t get caught inside or Nall and the receivers will have open lanes on the edge. Linebackers Sunia Tauteoli and Kavika Luafatasaga will have to be sound in their reads and scrape over the line to the ball, especially on the outside sweeps where Oregon State will pull two linemen. Safeties Chase Hansen and Marcus Williams will have to wrap up and tackle.

The good news for Utah is that they have the size and talent up front to win the battle at the line-of-scrimmage. We might see even more of Utah’s three-tackle look with Filipo Mokofisi at end along with Lowell Lotulelei and Pasoni Tasini manning the interior. Tasini’s penchant for quickly getting into the backfield could have a big impact disrupting running plays and getting in the way of pulling linemen.

Linebacker play has been improved each of the past two games, and the emergence of Luafatasaga has been the reason. The highly-touted junior college transfer is comfortable enough with the system to get on the field, and he’s making an impact with 9 tackles in the last two games, 7 last week against Cal. Cody Barton will see playing time when Utah goes to three linebacker sets.

In the secondary, Utah’s corners are likely going to be on an island more than usual as the Utes commit more resources to stopping the run. The Utes have been burned over the top the past two games, and Oregon State has receivers with enough speed to beat the corners deep if the quarterback can throw an accurate football. Everyone will have to tackle well. Utah’s corners will also have to be alert and aware to help stop the jet sweeps.

Edge: Utah

Special Teams

Oregon State struggles in the kicking game, and the issues will be magnified in the wind. Kicker Garrett Owens is a decent kicker, though he struggles with kicks of 40 or more yards. He’s a career 79 percent kicker and has made 8 of 10 field goals this season. Punt Nick Porebski is a better directional kicker than distance kicker, though he can occasionally get off a 50 or 60-yard punt. He’s averaging 41.9 yards per punt with 11 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. Adley Rutschman handles kickoffs, with 9 touchbacks and a kick out-of-bounds in 22 kicks.

The Beavers have explosive potential in the return game, courtesy of Bolden. He is averaging 30.7 yards on kick returns with a touchdown. Bolden has been held in check on punt returns this season, averaging 3.5 yards per return, but did return a punt for a score last season.

There have been some gaps in Oregon State’s coverage, as they are allowing 21.5 yards per kick return with a long of 56 yards. Consistency and tackling are the main issues for the kick coverage team. Porebski’s shorter punts have allowed the punt coverage team to get downfield and they have done a decent job of surrounding punt returners and quickly getting them to the ground, allowing 3.7 yards per punt return.

Utah’s special teams play has picked up in recent weeks, especially on kick returns. Utah’s blocking has improved, giving Cory Butler-Byrd room to utilize his skills. Against Arizona, Butler-Byrd returned 3 kicks for 84 yards, by far the most production the Utes have had out of the return game. Boobie Hobbs has not had many opportunities to return punts recently, with 4 returns in the past 3 games. He has toned down his aggressiveness and is playing a bit smarter on punt returns.

Coverage teams are getting downfield and are also playing better in recent weeks. On the season the Utes are allowing 20.3 yards per kick return and 4.2 yards per punt return, though they have not allowed a punt return in three games. 

Andy Phillps has made 9 of 11 field goal attempts this season, including 2 of 3 from 40 or more yards. Mitch Wishnowski is yet again atop the leaderboard for punting average and net punting average, though his numbers could take a hit this week due to the wind conditions. His 48.1-yard net punt average is nearly a yard-and-a-half better than second-place Cameron Johnston, though Johnston doesn’t have enough punts to qualify for official NCAA stats.

Edge: The weather makes this even

Prediction: It will be an ugly game in ugly weather; the wind alone would be enough to keep scoring to a minimum. The passing game and kicking game for both teams could be adventurous. Utah is the better team in the trenches on both sides of the ball. The Utes pitch a shutout in a game that plays to their strengths. 14-0

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