Injury-dinged Utah digs deep for Oregon State trip
No. 21 Utah could be down to its sixth-string running back, a week after inserting a fourth-stringer at center.
Utah lost running back Armand Shyne to a season-ending knee injury last week, and his replacement, walk-on Jordan Howard, won't play Saturday at Oregon State because of an undisclosed injury. Next up could be redshirt freshman Marcel Manalo, true freshman Devonta'e Henry-Cole (who has not yet played) or a player moved from another position.
At least there's a chance that running back Zack Moss (309 rushing yards) could return mostly healthy for the game at Reser Stadium, starting at 4 p.m. ET.
"This is the worst I can remember and I've been here a lot of years," 12th-year Utes coach Kyle Whittingham said of the injuries. "I can't remember this many injuries."
Utah (5-1, 2-1) has still managed to find itself in a three-way tie for first-place in the Pac-12 South with Colorado and Arizona State. Oregon State (2-3, 1-1) ended a 12-game conference losing streak Saturday with a 47-44 overtime home victory over Cal.
"Can you grow from that? Boy, you better," Oregon State coach Gary Andersen said. "You absolutely should grow from that moment.
"We have to understand that is what you're supposed to do, win football games. It should give them an understanding of what it takes to win in the Pac-12. It's a great win, but we still have lots of work to do."
The Utes have been playing with fire by falling behind so early, given its injury situation. They were down 24-10 to USC before rallying for a 31-27 victory. They trailed Cal 14-0 in the first quarter and lost 28-23. They fell behind 14-3 to Arizona last week but came back for a 36-23 victory.
"We're a pretty decent football team if we stop some of the self-inflicted stuff," said Whittingham, who reached 100 career victories last week. "We do some things to create tough situations for ourselves. And we've got to get those fixed."
Oregon State rushed for 474 yards in last week's victory over Cal, when running back Ryan Nall became the eighth player in school history to rush for more than 200 yards in a game. He finished with 221 on just 14 carries. Art Pierce and speedy Paul Lucas are reliable backups who will also be needed against a Utah defense that is 24th nationally against the run, allowing 119.0 yards per game.
As for Utah's running game, the depletion in the backfield -- which includes the early season retirement of Joe Williams -- is exacerbated by the injuries at center. The Utes, without standout center J.J. Dielman for the rest of the season because of a foot injury, started fourth-stringer Nick Nowakowski last week against Arizona. Utah committed nine false start penalties.
Whittingham partially blamed that on Arizona's defense mimicking the snap count, although Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez called that an "empty accusation." In any case, Utah will look this week in practice to see if senior offensive linemen Isaac Asiata or Sam Tevi can handle the center position.
"Nick Nowakowski didn't play poorly but we want to get the five best guys out there," Whittingham said. "If there's a better combination, I'm interested in that."
It has all put more pressure on quarterback Troy Williams, who has not thrown an interception in 106 passes in three Pac-12 games. His season completion percentage of 58.3 is something he is working on, but at least he is not putting Utah in trouble. Leading receiver Tim Patrick, who has caught five of Williams' seven touchdown passes, missed the Arizona game but has a "high probability" of playing Saturday, according to Whittingham.
Oregon State held Cal quarterback Davis Webb to 113 passing yards, well below his average of 428.6 entering the game. Cornerback Xavier Crawford had 10 tackles and broke up three passes.
Beavers quarterback Darell Garretson was just 13 of 24 for 85 yards, with two interceptions, in the win over Cal, when OSU was saved by its running game. The Beavers, who don't have a reception of longer than 20 yards in the past two games, will find that strategy harder to implement against a stout Utah front, led by potential first-round defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei.
"They have really good run schemes with a lot of misdirection and fly sweeps," Whittingham said of the Oregon State run game. "They have a whole arsenal in their repertoire. That's the main thing, trying to stop them running the football."