SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to Saturday’s game against Oregon State and Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion, Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has made one point of emphasis clear.
“We have to get a pass rush,” Whittingham said. “I think that is where it all starts, not let him get comfortable back there and have all day to throw the football because when he does he is very effective.”
Mannion, who enters the Pac-12 opener for both teams ranked among the national leaders in passing yards, completions and total offense, certainly has the Utes’ attention.
“He’s a great quarterback — very accurate and he has a great receiving corps with him,” said Utah defensive end Nate Orchard. “We’ve just got to get to him. It’s going to be tough.”
Mannion has teamed with top targets Brandin Cooks, Storm Woods and Connor Hamlett for an average of 24 receptions per game this season.
The Beavers, though, are hurting up front. Right guard Roman Sapolu (season-ending foot injury) and right tackle Grant Enger (MCL tear) were injured in last week’s win over Hawaii and won’t be playing against Utah.
The ailments, coupled with situations that include a retirement, a concussion, a knee injury and a bout with mononucleosis that sidelined four others earlier this season, have left Oregon State depleted up front. The Oregonian reports that the Beavers’ only backups this week include a true freshman and a walk-on.
Utah’s defensive front, though, isn’t looking at it as an area to exploit.
“I’m not looking at it that way. This is the Pac-12. Every team is great and every player is great,” Orchard said. “Their coaching staff is going to go a great job of moving their guys around and finding guys to fill in those spots.”
Defensive end Trevor Reilly has similar thoughts.
“The big difference between this league and a lot of other leagues is the depth. So their twos may be just below their ones,” Reilly said. “So we’re really not looking at it like that. We’re looking at it like as if we’re facing their starters.”
Utah’s defensive front brings some impressive credentials into the contest. Senior tackle Tenny Palepoi and Orchard are tied for the conference lead with 3 1/2 tackles for loss. In addition, Palepoi is second in sacks with 1 1/4 per game.
“Right now, through two games, our defensive line is playing well,” Whittingham said. “Like I said way back in fall camp, we think we have one of the best, if not the best, defensive front in the Pac-12 conference.”
Whittingham is confident those guys can match up with anybody the Utes play.
“That should be the case throughout the entire season and that’s just how it’s been here for a lot of years,” he said. “We’ve been real strong up front. This year’s no exception.”
The contributions, Whittingham added, have been plentiful. He said Palepoi played exceptional last week and also had high praise for tackles Seni Fauonuku, Latu Heimuli and LT Tuipulotu, as well as the ends.
“Utah has set a precedence as far as being a defensive line university. Just look at how many guys we have in the NFL and how many guys that have been in the NFL in the last 10 or 15 years,” said Reilly, who leads the Utes with 14 tackles. “So that’s going to be a given every year with the Polynesian connection and the great coaching we get here.”
Palepoi noted that Whittingham gives the line a lot of hype, but added that the players need to show it on the field — especially in weeks like this.
“To see Oregon State this early on the season, it’s going to be a big test for us and we have to pass,” he said.
Statistics are secondary to the final outcome.
“I don’t pay attention to like statistics or anything,” Palepoi said. “I’m just trying to make plays and trying to be an impact player.”
Added Orchard: “My main focus is to win games. ... As long as I give my all every play on the field and the outcome is a victory, I’m fine.”
EXTRA POINTS: Utah is ninth in the nation in pass efficiency offense (192.75 rating) and 11th in scoring offense (50 points per game). ... Oregon State running back Jovan Stevenson has been suspended by the Pac-12 for the first half of Saturday’s game for a late hit on a defenseless opponent last week against Hawaii. ... Bleacher and standing-room-only tickets remain for the Utes’ five remaining home games.
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