- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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When Oregon State and Utah open conference play Saturday, both teams will be looking for momentum.
For the Utes, who are 7-11 in Pac-12 games since joining the league two years ago, it could be a quality win against a North Division foe that started the season ranked.
For Oregon State, which saw its popularity in the rankings slip away in the wake of its Week 1 loss to Eastern Washington, this game could be the next step in restoring its image.
And while no coach ever wants to over- or under-play the importance of a single game -- both head coaches recognize that the outcome Saturday could influence the trajectory of the season for both squads.
“There’s no doubt that early momentum is a good thing,” said Oregon State coach Mike Riley. “As you reach a new threshold, depending where your team is, these games always loom bigger and bigger. We’ve been through some stuff already that has set us back; a loss to a team that we were supposedly supposed to beat and then with some injuries. We’ve already been through a bunch and to be able to overcome that and maybe win the opening conference game, there’s a lot to that.”
Three weeks ago, this one looked like just another step in Oregon State’s projected 7-0 start: “projected” being the operative word. Few saw the Week 1 loss coming for the Beavers while the Utes offense has been as explosive as its defense has been gritty.
Utah, which is 2-0 after a hard-fought win in Week 1 against Utah State and an easy-day victory over Weber State last week, knows it has to maximize a schedule that’s heavy on the home games early. Five of the Utes’ first six games are at Rice-Eccles -- and they don’t even need to leave the state for their one road trip, a trek about 45 minutes South to Provo and BYU. That sets the stage for four of their final six on the road.
“We know that the front half of the schedule is loaded with home games and we’re going to try to take advantage of that,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “When we got the schedule several months ago, that was very apparent. We have a lot of home games early and a lot of road games on the back end so we have to try to make the most of the home schedule we have early.”
Two of the league’s top passers will be on display with Utah’s Travis Wilson and OSU’s Sean Mannion. Through the first two weeks they rank second and third, respectively, among Pac-12 starters. Wilson has completed 31 of 47 balls for 566 yards with five touchdowns and no picks. Mannion has completed 68 of 86 passes for 794 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception.
While the Beavers might be a little down after their unexpected start -- the loss to Eastern Washington and the struggles against Hawaii -- Wilson says he has to be prepared for Oregon State’s best.
“You never know how they are going to play and react each game,” Wilson said. “We just have to make sure we’re prepared as well as we can be on our end.”
Riley has leaned heavily on his seniors and veteran players to guide the Beavers through what has been a trying first couple of weeks.
“I’ve been impressed by the fact that nobody blinks,” Riley said. “We have some good leadership on this team and some tremendous older guys and a stable group of coaches that are working to try to get a win. We’ve already been through quite a bit two games into the year. But I’ve been impressed with their reaction."