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Strong finish propels Beavers

CORVALLIS — The football centerpiece of Homecoming 2021 at Oregon State had something to evoke memories for OSU alums of any era.

If you were on campus from the 1970s through the 1990s, there were the Beavers’ first eight minutes against Utah, when a boatload of blunders recalled some of the worst moments of a string of 28 straight losing seasons.

Saturday’s second half at Reser Stadium looked familiar to those who were around in the Rose Bowl and Giant Killer seasons of the 1950s and 1960s, or from 1999-2013 when OSU went to 11 bowls in 15 seasons. And that was enough for the Beavers to rally past the Utes, 42-34, in a game matching the co-leader in the Pac-12’s North Division against the leader in the South Division.

“It was kind of a tale of two halves,” OSU head coach Jonathan Smith said. “I just thought these guys played four quarters. We talk about it a lot. It’s not always easy. It was not a game of perfect football out there, especially that first half.”

Given the way things started for the Beavers, it was an unlikely outcome.

“I was thinking, ‘Okay, how did we come out like this?’” Smith said. “I was thinking about the schedule we had in the bye week, and did we emphasize this, and the speed of play and just the quality in really all three phases.”

Offense, defense and special teams all contributed to the Beavers falling behind 14-0 midway through the first quarter.

The defense gave up a long scoring drive on the first possession, kept alive by a third-down pass interference penalty; an ill-advised kickoff return with a penalty had OSU starting its first drive at its own 10-yard line. Oregon State’s first series lost 9 yards and resulted in a fumble the Beavers were fortunate to recover at their 1.

A low snap on the ensuing punt resulted in a short field for Utah, which drove for another touchdown. The score came on a play where Utah tight end Brent Kuithe had much of the 97331 zip code to himself due to a blown coverage and it was 14-0 with 7:19 left in the first quarter.

“So that’s what I was thinking, was, ‘How did we get to the point we’re starting this way?’” Smith said. “I was thinking about the schedule we had (during the bye week). And trust me, we’re going to rehash this as a staff tomorrow.

“Look, none of these games are going to be perfect football games but to start like that was not good. But I will give credit: it’s not always easy to answer after a start like that.”

Oregon State did score on its next two possessions, sandwiched around a Utah field goal, to get within 17-14. The momentum swung further the Beavers’ way when they held on a fourth-and-goal from their 2, Julian Alton dragging down Kuithe at the 1.

With a chance to drive for the lead, OSU quarterback Chance Nolan rushed to the left and, carrying the ball away from his body, fumbled; it was initially ruled the ball went out-of-bounds but upon review Utah’s Junior Tafuna had corralled it just inside the sideline at the OSU 19.

It took Utah three plays to score, putting the Beavers back in a two-score hole at 24-14 at halftime.

“We came in and kind of regrouped at halftime and then I think the first possession of the second half was a huge momentum factor, for us to be able to get the score and then get within range, and then the defense comes up with a huge stop and a punt block for a touchdown,” Smith said.

The punt block that gave OSU its first lead came midway through the third quarter when Luke Musgrave and Riley Sharp both got their hands on Cameron Peasley’s kick, then Musgrave found the bouncing football and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown that put OSU up 28-24.

“We were practicing that all week,” Musgrave said. “Coach (Jake) Cookus kind of schemed that game plan and we knew it had the potential to work, and it worked and we ended up getting a touchdown out of it.

“Once I felt the ball hit my hand, I knew it had to be somewhere. So I went looking for it, found it and was able to return it.”

Musgrave, a tight end, didn’t expect to score his first collegiate touchdown quite that way.

“No,” he said. “But that’s how it worked out and I couldn’t be more happy.”

With the win, Oregon State is one victory from being bowl eligible for the first time since 2013.

“That’s kind of cool,” Trevon Bradford said. “We’re what, 5-2 now? We feel good, but you’ve got to just take it one game at a time. We’ve still got business to take care of.”

BLOCKED, OR MAYBE NOT: Oregon State blocked a pair of Utah punts but ended up only able to take credit for one. After the second one, returned by Omar Speights to the Ute 11-yard line, OSU was penalized for illegal equipment as it had two players wearing jersey No. 8 on the field.

One was Bradford, the returner. The other was defensive back Elijah Jones; he was on the field for the punt return unit in place of Jaydon Grant, who had been ejected for targeting in the second half, and Alton Julian, who was injured in the first half. OSU’s coaches didn’t realize the duplication when Jones was bumped up into the unit, hence the penalty.

The Utes were without long snapper Keegan Markgraf, who suffered a season-ending injury in last week’s win over Arizona State. Replacement J.T. Greep wasn’t to blame for the blocks; Smith credited the rush scheme devised by special teams coach Cookus for the successes.

PASSING IT ON: Oregon State’s play calling still leaned heavily toward the run, but Nolan showed the efficiency of his first three games after struggling in his last two. In a win over Washington and a loss at Washington State, Nolan had been a combined 18-for-51 for 206 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions.

Against Utah, Nolan was 14-for-19 for 208 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. That gave OSU a somewhat balanced offense, going with its 260 yards rushing.

“We just made the plays when the plays came our way,” said Bradford, who had a team-high six catches for 74 yards and a touchdown. “The last couple games he (Nolan) is delivering the ball really well. We know when he has the opportunity to throw the ball, he’s going to deliver the ball.”

Smith felt Nolan had some good throws in the first half but left a few potential gains on the table, but the second half was a different story.

“That was the Chance we knew (in the first four games),” Smith said. “Some huge conversions on third down. We’re backed up and he throws the go route to (Tre’Shaun Harrison, for 54 yards late in the game), that was a big-time throw.”

OSU’s do-everything player, linebacker/quarterback Jack Colletto, had one of the first-half receptions, for a 1-yard touchdown. It was his first career catch.

DEFENSE DELIVERS: Oregon State entered the game last in the Pac-12 (48.9%) in allowing opponents to convert third downs into first downs. Utah’s 7-for-15 mark won’t help that number, but in the second half OSU improved from its 6-for-9 mark in the first half and came up with some huge stops down the stretch.

The Beavers had stopped Utah on a fourth-and-goal in the first half then came up even bigger in the second half. After the Utes scored in the third quarter to go up 31-28, their next possessions resulted in a missed field goal and another stop on fourth-and-goal when defensive back Alex Austin broke up a pass at the goal line,

By then, OSU was up 42-31 in a game that had seemed like whichever team could come up with a stop or two would be the winner.

“Bend, don’t break,” said OSU linebacker Avery Roberts. “They’re a good team, they’re going to make plays. Just keep them out of the end zone. Make them keep snapping the ball and eventually things will go our way and they did.”

Roberts — who seems to make a habit of big games against Utah, including 21 tackles last season — finished with 16 tackles.

“They run the ball,” Roberts said of the Utes. “Teams that run the ball, you’re going to get a chance to make a lot of plays.”

CROWD CONTRIBUTION: This past week, Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham gave Salt Lake City media his view on visiting Reser Stadium.

“You typically have a pretty boisterous crowd. It’s just an environment that is typically one of the tougher places to play in the Pac-12,” Whittingham said. “Other than the fans and the overall environment, I don’t have a great answer for you, but it has proven to be a tough place.”

It took a while to reach that point, but Whittingham likely felt the same Saturday.

The announced crowd of 30,203 found its voice when the Beavers got back in the game in the first half, then Smith felt it went to full throat when OSU took its first lead on Musgrave’s return of a blocked punt for a touchdown.

“I thought our crowd made a difference in the second half,” Smith said. “The crowd noise, energy, we got some third-down plays out of our defense in the second half. It all kind of came together.”

EXTRA POINTS: Oregon State now leads the all-time series with Utah 12-11-1, including a 6-4-1 mark in Corvallis. The victory ended a five-game losing streak against the Utes … OSU running back B.J. Baylor ran for 152 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. It was his fourth straight 100-yard game and he has now rushed for 830 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Baylor’s 68-yard run in the second quarter was the longest of his career … prior to kickoff, there was a moment of silence for Aaron Lowe, a Utah player who was killed in a shooting in Salt Lake City in September. Earlier, OSU officials had laid a bouquet of roses at the 22-yard line next to Utah’s sideline to honor Lowe’s jersey No. 22.

Oregon State wide receiver Anthony Gould (15) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the first half of the team's NCAA college football game against Utah on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, in Corvallis, Ore. (AP Photo/Amanda Loman)