Last Saturday's 48-31 romp past UCLA at the Rose Bowl wasn't a signature win, but it wasn't just business as usual, either.
Jonathan Smith is trying to establish a winning culture at Oregon State, and it has to start somewhere, even if it's against a downtrodden Bruins program that Chip Kelly is having a dickens of a time attempting to resurrect.
The victory was an important one for the Beavers, who are trying to make the incremental move up from the basement to the middle levels of the Pac-12, where a bowl appearance becomes possible.
The UCLA game was a great step. The Beavers played efficiently and with emotion. They got the jump on the Bruins and never let their foot off the gas pedal. They made big plays in all three phases of the game — offense, defense and special teams. They finished.
Oregon State's last winning season was in 2013, when Mike Riley's Beavers went 7-6 and beat Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. None of the current players, save for a couple of transfers, have experienced a winning campaign at the college level. If you don't have to learn how to win, as the cliché goes, at least you have to be shown some tangible proof that hard work and the right attitude pays off.
The Beavers got that in Pasadena, and it's possible they'll be able to use that as a springboard to greater success. The biggest impediment in the short term is Utah, probably the Pac-12 opponent OSU would least like to face next.
Utah (4-1 overall, 1-1 in Pac-12 play) is ranked No. 15. The only loss was 30-23 to Southern Cal, followed by a 38-13 rout of Washington State. The Utes will be coming off a bye week when they invade Reser Stadium for a 5 p.m. Saturday matchup with the Beavers (2-3, 1-1).
The Utes have a solid offense, led by quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zach Moss, and an outstanding defense. They lead the Pac-12 and rank third nationally in run defense (53.8 yards per game) and top the conference in total defense (282.4). Utah is fourth in total offense (460.2) and second in rushing offense (223.4).
Huntley, a 6-1, 205-pound senior and a third-year starter, was terrific against Wazzu, completing 21 of 30 passes for 334 yards and two touchdowns. He has thrown for 1,146 yards and seven TDs with no interceptions and leads the conference in completion percentage (74.6).
Moss, a 5-10, 220-pound senior who rushed for 1,096 yards in only nine games last season, leads the Pac-12 with a 98.3-yard average in four games this season. He missed the Cougars game with a shoulder injury but is expected to play Saturday. He needs 176 yards to become Utah's career rushing leader. The Beavers hope that doesn't happen against them.
Utah also has a deep threat in redshirt freshman Dominique Thompson, who has only 11 receptions but with a league-best 28.2 yards per catch.
The Utes could have their hands full trying to control Oregon State's offense. The Beavers rank second in the Pac-12 (behind Washington State) in scoring with a 37.0-point average. That's on pace to break the school record of 34.8 set in 2013.
The Beavers lead the Pac-12 in third-down conversions (35 of 54, 54 percent) and top the nation in fewest turnovers (one) and fewest fumbles lost (zero).
Quarterback Jake Luton leads the FBS ranks in touchdown/interceptions ratio at 14-0. The 6-7, 225-pound senior is third in the Pac-12 in touchdown passes and fourth in passing yards per game (259.4), completing passes at a 62.1-percent rate.
Senior Artavis Pierce is second in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (96.4), with 482 yards and five TDs. Pierce is third in the conference with a 7.5-yards-per-carry average.
Junior Isaiah Hodgins leads the league in receptions (43), receiving yardage (632) and TD catches (nine).
Oregon State ranks third in the Pac-12 in total offense (475.6) and rushing (203.0).
The Beavers' defense doesn't measure up to Utah's, ranking eighth in total defense (440.6), seventh in pass defense (245.0) and last in rush defense (195.6). But since the opening 52-36 loss to Oklahoma State, the Beaver defense has performed capably and shown improvement in every area.
The win over UCLA was validation to the Oregon State players that they are moving in the right direction.
"It's a big win for our program," said Hodgins, a legitimate candidate to become the third Beaver in 15 years to claim the Biletnikoff Trophy as the nation's top receiver. "It gives us confidence. It showed us that we can do it. We put together a complete game."
"It helps for the players' morale, for the culture of our place," second-year coach Smith said. "We could have won a couple more games earlier. To get over the hump is huge, but we still have seven guaranteed games left."
What Smith means is, the Beavers hold out hope they can get to a bowl game this season. That would mean at least four more victories.
Will they get one Saturday? It's not out of the question.
But Utah has two weeks to prepare, its star running back returning and one of the sturdiest defenses in the country. Look how the Utes dismantled Washington State, holding the Cougars to 313 yards total offense and 61 on the ground.
That one was in Salt Lake City. This one will be on the road against an OSU team that has a new level of confidence and plenty of motivation. It's going to be a tremendous challenge for the Beavers' offensive line, which has done an excellent job protecting Luton and a solid job opening holes for running backs Pierce and Jermar Jefferson.
I don't see this one going Oregon State's way.
The pick — Utah 31, Oregon State 21
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.