It’s really important we start off on a good foot for our first conference game. I think we have a great chance this Saturday. I know Oregon State is going to be a good team and a good opponent, but I think we're definitely going to be ready. —Utah quarterback Travis Wilson
SALT LAKE CITY — Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utah Utes have gotten off to slow starts in conference play. So slow, in fact, that their first wins didn’t come until four setbacks were in the books. Initial victories didn’t come until late October.
After two seasons of that, however, the Utes are looking for better success — especially in their annual pursuit of the Pac-12 South Division crown. Their first opportunity to get off to a winning start comes Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Utah (2-0) takes on Oregon State (1-1) in the Pac-12 opener for both teams. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.
“It’s really important we start off on a good foot for our first conference game. I think we have a great chance this Saturday,” said Utah quarterback Travis Wilson. “I know Oregon State is going to be a good team and a good opponent, but I think we're definitely going to be ready.”
The Utes are 2-0 for the first time since 2010, having defeated Utah State (30-26) and Weber State (70-7).
“Every week’s important for us, so we prepare the same way,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “We go through the same routine. We have the same intensity at practice and so that’s something that doesn’t change.”
Even so, he acknowledges that Pac-12 play is a little bit different.
“When your objective is to try to compete for the South Division title then obviously that makes conference games very important,” Whittingham said.
That’s how senior defensive end Trevor Reilly looks at it. There’s an added emphasis to the contests that count in that regard.
“It’s a whole different game when the Pac-12 starts because these are the conference games,” Reilly said. “Our No. 1 goal this year is to win the Pac-12 South. So this is our first step towards that. So hopefully we’ll pull it out this week.”
Oregon State could pose quite a challenge. Despite opening the season with a 49-46 upset loss at home to Eastern Washington of the Big Sky Conference, the Beavers did start out ranked 25th in both national polls. They bounced back to defeat Hawaii, 33-14, last week.
Although riddled with injuries on the line, Oregon State still sports a powerful offense.
Quarterback Sean Mannion ranks second in the nation with 397 yards passing per game. He’s fourth in completions (34 per game) and sixth in total offense (390.5 ypg).
Wide receiver Brandin Cooks averages 144 yards receiving and 10 catches per game, ranking fourth in the country in each category. Running back Storm Woods and tight end Connor Hamlett are also among the Pac-12 leaders in receptions.
Utah counters with a defense that includes linemen Tenny Palepoi and Nate Orchard, who are tied for the conference lead in tackles for loss. Palepoi is second in sacks as well.
On the offensive side, Wilson leads the Pac-12 with 18.26 yards per completion.
“We’ve made progress in our first two games and we’ll need to continue our improvement against Oregon State in our Pac-12 opener this Saturday,” Whittingham said in Utah’s weekly press release. “The Pac-12 is 16-4 through the first two weeks of the season and every week is going to be a challenge.”
Utah’s previous Pac-12 openers included a 23-14 loss at USC in 2011 and a 37-7 setback at Arizona State last year.