SALT LAKE CITY — Chatter about the Utah football team being out of its (new) league is poppycock, according to the coach whose team will try to hand the Utes their fifth straight Pac-12 defeat this weekend.
Oregon State coach Mike Riley heaped praise upon Utah earlier this week, calling the conference newbies a "good football program" and gushing about the Utes' physical defense.
He believes Utah — his description: an "impressive looking team" — has a bright Pac-12 future.
Judging his team's talent, the same could be said of Oregon State.
Not only did OSU garner Pac-12 offensive and defensive players of the week awards, but the two honored Beavers so happen to be first-year players.
Redshirt freshmen Sean Mannion (quarterback) and Scott Crichton (defensive end) have become impact players for OSU, which will enter Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday having picked up wins in two of its past three games.
Mannion threw for 376 yards and four touchdowns in a 44-21 win over Washington State last week.
For the season, the playmaker has OSU's pass attack flying smoothly. The Beavers (2-5, 2-2 Pac-12) are ranked 18th nationally with an average of 297.3 passing yards per game.
"He has a great demeanor. He runs the offense very well," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of Mannion, who passed for 306 yards in a 38-28 loss to BYU. "From what you can tell on tape, he doesn't panic. He's a guy that does what he's supposed to."
Best part for OSU, Riley said, is that Mannion keeps improving.
"He's like our team in a microcosm," Riley said. "He's gotten better each week as our team has. Sean is a good example of somebody who learns every week."
Mannion works hard in practice to prepare for upcoming opponents, Riley added. Then, the young QB shows "a lot of poise" while dissecting opposing defenses, using his strong field vision and finding check-down receivers during games. His coach lauds Mannion for having the toughness to stay and move around in the pocket long enough to make plays.
Those qualities helped Mannion impress in spring and win the starting job in the fall.
"He's a very, very unassuming person, very even keeled," Riley said. "He's smart enough to know he has to study really hard."
And Riley is smart enough to not be fooled into overconfidence by Utah's 0-4 Pac-12 record. He's especially impressed by the Utes' defense.
"Our biggest challenge (against Utah)," Riley added, "is going to be to protect him … and to get open."
Crichton spearheaded OSU's defensive attack in its win at Wazzou last week. He had seven tackles, including one sack, two forced fumbles and a pass breakup. He is tied for the conference lead in tackles-for-loss with 10.
"Scott Crichton is really, really playing well. He had a monster game up in Seattle," Riley said. "He's a good athlete who's just growing, very mature for his age. I think he's a good student of what he's doing and he's got ability. That's a good combination."
Defensive end Dylan Wynn, another freshman, has set an OSU record with five fumble recoveries so far in 2011.
Wynn, Mannion and Crichton are the cream of OSU's young crop, and they've helped the Beavers move in the right direction after starting the season with four consecutive losses.
Twenty-three freshmen have seen action for Oregon State this season, including a school-record 10 true freshmen a la Wynn.
At this point of the season, though, Whittingham noted that experienced rookies can no longer be considered "true freshmen."
Especially when they're playing as well as some Beavers have been.
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