There are three key match-ups in this game that I think will dictate the outcome.
1. Sean Harlow vs. Nate Orchard
Since Sean is practicing at left tackle and Gavin Andrews moved to right tackle, Harlow is going to be the main matchup with Orchard. Nate is an exceptional defensive end in Utah’s 4-3 defensive scheme and is the conference leader in tackles for loss (9) and sacks (8). He has been very disruptive and dominated UCLA’s left tackle all game. He is very explosive and fast around the end, but also uses a push pull move when needed. He also does a good job of forcing offensive linemen to commit on a deep pass rush and then cuts underneath. He has active hands and a very high motor.
Fortunately, Harlow is arguably our best active lineman and is very physical. I look for OSU to try and use Orchard’s athleticism against him by getting him to drive up-field and run underneath or on screen passes. Another thing I hope they do is attack him often with toss sweeps and fly sweeps. Get him on his heels a bit and get him thinking on fly motion plays. Anything that slows him down will give Harlow a huge edge.
2. Jabral Johnson vs. Devontae Booker
Booker is a very good runner that reminds Dennis Erickson of Ken Simonton. A very hard runner with great vision, Booker is always looking for cut back lanes and makes his cuts with authority. Watching his touchdown run against UCLA, you see a play that UCLA kind of blew up on the line, but Booker picks his way to a seam and then explodes through it, breaking a tackle on the way. OSU is going to have to be very conscious where he is at all times. He is also a decent receiving threat out of the backfield with a 61 yard reception this year.
For OSU, it is going to be imperative that they don’t lose Booker in the backfield. He is not only deadly as a runner in their pistol or read option formations, but he is also a back that can swing out on wheel routes and really hurt OSU. While it will be important for all of OSU’s linebackers to track Booker, it will be up to the middle, Johnson or Mageao depending on who is in and what formations we are using, to keep tabs on him and make sure he doesn’t exploit a flaw in OSU’s defense.
3. Josh Mitchell vs. Jared Norris
Norris is the best linebacker on a stout linebacking crew for Utah. They are going to bring pressure when needed and do everything they can to stop OSU from running. Last year, OSU was not able to move the ball on the ground at all, and they lost Storm Woods to a concussion. They were able to pass for 443 yards so it was a very one sided game. This year, OSU is running better and is not passing at anywhere near the clip they did last year. For the Beavers to run, they are going to need to contain #41. Jared has 8.5 tackles for loss and 4 sacks on the year to go with 28 tackles. He will be in on plays but the Beavers need to be able to get some yards on the ground and keep him and Orchard off Mannion.
Mitchell is going to have to make a lot of protection calls and they are going to have to execute. The guards (whoever they may be should Bays not be good to go) are going to have to be ready for twist stunts and to pick up delayed blitzes, and that starts up front with communication. Mitchell has quietly had a fantastic year this year, but this will be a bigger test than any they have had this year. Utah has a better front seven than USC does and probably next to OSU, UW and Stanford is at the top of the conference. (Sorry UCLA, you are too soft)
If OSU can win those match ups, and can move the ball in the air and on the ground, I think it is a good guess that OSU can win. But if OSU has to rely on the passing game and if Booker is able to run then it will be a long game for the Beavers. I would throw in the QB’s, but I have no idea who will be playing and neither has been amazing this year. Against Michigan they kicked 5 field goals and had a punt return for a touchdown. Against UCLA they barely had 100 yards passing and finished with less than 350 yards. Against WSU they had just over 350 yards. The key to all those games, and most of those 280 – 350 yards a contest, has been Booker, so he needs to be the Beavers top priority.