Million dollar questions

By By Cody Brunner

By Cody Brunner

Who will get the bulk of carries at running back when Utah opens its season tonight? Will standout Oregon State wide receiver Sammie Stroughter suit up for the contest? Who will the Beavers go with at quarterback in the second half?

Despite the significance of these questions, all of them go unanswered heading into the season opener tonight at Reser Stadium in Corvallis, Ore.

For the Utes, the biggest question mark revolves around the running back position, where three players are vying for playing time. Snow College juco transfer Matt Asiata was the clear-cut favorite heading into the season, but a foot injury early in fall camp has kept him out of all contact drills leading up to the game against the Beavers.

“The only problem, or situation, with Matt Asiata is that he has had no live reps,” said U head coach Kyle Whittingham. “I don’t think that the injury will affect him in any way, but this game will give us a good read on what he is capable of.”

Whittingham has said that Asiata, who is more of a power runner, will share carries with senior incumbent Darryl Poston and junior Ray Stowers, who are both considered slashers, in the season-opener against the Beavers.

“The most efficient back will get the majority of the carries,” Whittingham said. “We’ll rotate them through there and whoever’s the hot back, whoever’s got the hot hand, will be the guy.”

Whittingham is the first to admit that this is not how he wanted things to be in the road opener.

“The sooner it works itself out, the sooner we can redistribute reps accordingly. We wanted to have the position solidified before the first game but the injury situation didn’t allow us to do that.”

The Beavers are facing a similar situation at the quarterback position, where sophomores Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao will compete for the top spot. But while the Utes will rotate three running backs, the Beaver coaching staff has decided that Canfield will start the first quarter and Moevao will take the second. The rest of the game will be decided at halftime.

The two quarterbacks vary greatly in style, with Canfield being a prototypical drop-back passer and Moevao being a more mobile quarterback.

Perhaps, the biggest question for the Beavers is whether or not star wideout Sammie Stroughter will play. The senior left the team two weeks ago to deal with personal issues. He returned to practice earlier this week, but Oregon State head coach Mike Riley said Stroughter is undecided on whether he will return to the team before the opener or for the rest of the season.

Stroughter, who is a team captain, led the Pac-10 in receiving last year with 1,293 yards and is going to spend the season as a Fred Biletnikoff Award candidate.

“Whether (Stroughter) plays or not, we won’t know until game time,” Whittingham said. “We’ve been planning for (OSU) as if he was going to play. If he does play, that obviously makes them a much more potent offense.”

Even without Stroughter, the Beavers would pack some punch, as they are returning one of the best running backs in the country in Yvenson Bernard. The senior has rushed for more than 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns in each of the last two seasons and heads into this season as one of the top candidates for the Doak Walker Award, given to the most outstanding running back in the conference.

“(Bernard) is a great back — tough, quick, fast,” Whittingham said. “He’s not the biggest guy, but he reminds me a lot of the kid UCLA had a couple years ago — Maurice Drew.”

Defensively, the Beavers have one of the fastest units in the Pac-10. Last season, Oregon State recorded the most sacks in their conference and also notched more tackles for loss than any other team in the country.

Leading the charge from his defensive-end position is senior Dorian Smith, who led the Beavers last season with nine sacks. Playing behind Smith is one of the most experienced and athletic line-backing corps in the Pac-10.

“Their linebackers are probably the most athletic we’ll face all season,” Utah quarterback Brian Johnson said. “They cover the field sideline to sideline and can keep up with anybody.”

When so many uncertainties abound on both teams, it must feel good to be sure of something. That something for the Utes is the quarterback position, where the dual-threat Johnson returns to guide the high-powered offense.

In 2005, Johnson led one of the most potent offenses in the country when he amassed an average of 337.0 total yards per game. But a torn ACL late in the season ended his impressive run.

“If I was Oregon State, I would have the whole 2005 season cut up, categorized and labeled and analyzed,” Whittingham said. “Last year, other than personnel, I wouldn’t even look at it. It helps our offense so much to have Brian back.”

The Utes are much more confident with Johnson back at the helm, and they will need to be in front of a crowd of close to 45,000 at Reser Stadium. Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who used to coach offense at the University of Oregon, said the Ducks’ in-state rival’s crowd is “right there on top of you” and that they are “one of the rowdier crowds in college football.”

But despite playing on the road against a good Pac-10 team, facing a hostile crowd and being unsure of their running back position, the Utes still feel good about their chances in Corvallis.

“Our guys are a little bit more prepared and a little bit more focused than we were last year against UCLA,” Johnson said. “We realize how important it is for us to start our season out on the right foot and we feel good about how we’re playing.”

[email protected]