CORVALLIS — Oregon State entered Saturday night's football game against Utah tied for first in the Pac-12 Conference in turnover margin at plus-6. The eighth-ranked Beavers upped that to plus-10 in a 21-7 conference win, and they needed each one of the four turnovers to stay unbeaten.
The Beavers — who committed no turnovers — turned two early turnovers into touchdowns, got another to snuff a potential game-tying Utah drive, and then a final interception to seal the game.
It was typical of this Beaver season: OSU may not hit on all cylinders on a given Saturday, but every time out it has found a way to win. A week after the Oregon State offense keyed a win at Brigham Young, the Beaver defense took charge against the Utes as the takeaways provided momentum early and a cushion late.
"When you look at why you win, the differences sometimes, the statistics are interesting that way," OSU head coach Mike Riley said. "Sometimes it's just production: big yardage or holding them to very low yardage. But turnovers are usually great, great indicators. Whatever tips the scales, a lot of times it's who runs the ball best. And they ran the ball better than we did tonight, but they turned the ball over in very bad field position at times and that was big for us."
Late in the first quarter, Utah quarterback Travis Wilson's pass over the middle was tipped by intended receiver DeVonte Christopher and picked off by linebacker Michael Doctor. He returned it 19 yards to the Utah 16-yard line; two plays later Storm Woods rolled into the end zone to give OSU the lead.
On Utah's next possession, facing a third-and-6, Wilson went back to pass and was leveled by Beaver defensive end Rudolf Fifita; the loose ball was covered by end Dylan Wynn at the Ute 10. Woods again provided the touchdown to make it 14-0.
As OSU's offense searched for its rhythm, the Beaver defense made that stand up — aided by another turnover.
At the outset of the third quarter, Utah drove to the OSU 3-yard line aided by a pass interference penalty. On third-and-goal, the Utes tried a reverse. Christopher dropped the pitch and Scott Chrichton pounced on the ball to preserve OSU's 14-7 lead.
Finally, with the Utes desperately trying to rally from a two-touchdown deficit in the closing minutes, Sean Martin picked off Wilson to wrap up the game with just over a minute remaining.
Utah had hit a 35-yard pass on its first play from scrimmage to reach the OSU 45; that drive eventually sputtered at the 25 and ended in a missed field goal.
From then until the end of the first quarter, the Utes gained nine yards on two-plus possessions and had that turnover that set up the Beavers' first score. On the first play of the second quarter came the second turnover and, two plays later, Oregon State's second touchdown.
VAZ TO EARTH: OSU quarterback Cody Vaz had a storybook debut when he stepped in for the injured Sean Mannion and led the Beavers to a win at Brigham Young, earning Pac-12 offensive player of the week honors. Against Utah, his tale was somewhere between a horror story and a mystery.
Early on, Vaz bobbled a snap in the shotgun for a 10-yard loss and had a pair of passes batted down. By the time Utah drew within 14-7 midway through the second quarter, the Beavers were being outgained 137-64; OSU had been given a pair of short fields for scores but was also having trouble stringing first downs together. Utah ended up with a 307-226 edge in total yards, partly because of those two short scoring drives for OSU.
But Vaz came up big for OSU when it counted. In the fourth quarter, with OSU still clinging to a 14-7 lead, the junior guided the Beavers on their only sustained drive of the night as they went 67 yards in seven plays to make it a two-score game.
On that drive, Vaz was 3-for-4 for 56 yards. Included was a 25-yard completion to Kevin Cummings that bailed the Beavers out of a first-and-24 situation and a 24-yard slant to Markus Wheaton that took the ball to the Ute 2.
"I thought those were some big-time throws on that one drive we had to go down and score," Riley said. "Cody made that big throw to Kevin Cummings and then that beautiful throw to Markus Wheaton off the play-action. We just hit some stuff that was timely. It was real, real hard but I'm proud of how the kids just kept playing and the coaches prepared them."
Riley felt it was also worth considering the night's opposition.
"I've said they (the Utes) are a top one, two or three defense for the last couple of years, at least, in this conference," Riley said. "Just very, very physical. So it was tough sledding; we knew it was going to be and we're just very excited about winning."
DON'T RUSH ME: In the 2011 meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah rushed for 225 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry as it beat Oregon State 27-8. Ute running back John White had 217 of those yards.
OSU's defense has been vastly improved against the run this season and the results against Utah provide an apt comparison. This time around, the Beavers limited Utah to 135 yards on the ground with White picking up just 68.
MURPHY'S LAW: You know it's a big hit when it draws "ooohhh's" three times. Midway through the third quarter, OSU's Ryan Murphy blasted Utah punt returner Charles Henderson. Each of the three replays brought an audible gasp from the crowd.
SUPER SIX: Oregon State is off to its first 6-0 start since 1907, when the Beavers won all six of their games and did not allow a point under head coach F.S. Norcross. That season, Oregon Agricultural College (as OSU was then known) beat Astoria 27-0, Whitman 6-0, Pacific 49-0, Oregon 4-0, Willamette 42-0 and St. Vincent College 10-0. That game at St. Vincent was just the Beavers' second football trip to California, following 10-0 loss at Cal in 1905. St. Vincent eventually became Loyola College, which became the current Loyola Marymount University. To put that in perspective, in 1907, OAC had an enrollment of 1,351; OSU today has an enrollment nearing 26,000.
THIS AND THAT: With six wins, Oregon State is assured bowl eligibility after missing out on postseason play the past two seasons. Since OSU snapped its long string of futility in 1999, the Beavers have qualified for bowl games in 10 of the past 14 years "… Oregon State is off to its first 4-0 conference start since 1968, when the Beavers opened Pac-8 play by beating Washington, Washington State, Stanford and UCLA before falling to Southern California in a game that kept them out of the Rose Bowl "… OSU has won its first three home games for the first time since 2010, when the Beavers beat Louisville, Arizona State and Arizona before being knocked off by Washington State 31-14.
The Beavers have won six straight for the first time since 2008, when OSU beat WSU, Washington, ASU, UCLA, Cal and Arizona in weeks 6 through Week 11 "… the Beavers have held three opponents to single-digit scores this season: Wisconsin (7), Washington State (6) and Utah (7). The last time the Beavers kept three opponents to fewer than 10 points was 2008 (Hawaii 7, UCLA 6, Pittsburgh 0) "… it was OSU's homecoming, and two of the alums who returned to Corvallis were James and Jacquizz Rodgers. They were introduced on the field between the first and second quarters and earned a prolonged ovation "… the sellout crowd of 45,769 was the fifth-largest in Reser Stadium history. It marked the first back-to-back sellouts for OSU since the 2008 games against California and Oregon.