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October 25, 2013

Oregon State defense making strides

Eight weeks is a long time, an eternity almost.

But for Oregon State's once maligned defense, that has been the period of time needed for redemption, and rehabilitating an abrupt ghastly reputation.

When the Beavers allowed 625 offensive yards to Division I-AA Eastern Washington on August 31 in a stunning season-opening 49-46 loss at Reser Stadium - a wretched performance that indeed was as scandalous as it looks - dire predictions of doom and gloom erupted.

The most-asked question in the aftermath of the EWU debacle was this one: Is the Beavers defense really that poor?

Two months later, the framework of an answer is beginning to take shape: No.

Clearly, the Beavers defense has made significant strides since the opener, a key factor in OSU's current six-game winning streak.

Over the past four games (at San Diego State, Colorado, at Washington State, at California), Oregon State has allowed an average of 343.5 yards per game, a figure that would rank second in the Pac-12 behind Southern Cal (333.9 ypg) if carried through for the entire season.

The aforementioned last four opponents have all been held well under their current season averages when they lost to Oregon State. In particular, Cal gained 366 yards against Oregon State in the Beavers' 49-17 victory last Saturday night in Berkeley, Calif., 100.3 yards below its season average.

Three of the four opponents (Colorado, Cal and San Diego State) were held at least 82 yards below their present season average entering Week 9 of the season, and they combined to average just 104 rushing yards per game and 3.3 yards per attempt.

How far has the Beavers defense come since late August? Eastern Washington scored on nine possessions in their upset win in Corvallis. However, Colorado, Washington State and Cal combined to score points on 10 drives, five of 75 yards or longer.

The solid defense over the past four games has resulted in Oregon State's steady climb to No. 8 in total defense in the Pac-12 (396.7 ypg). Not great since they're still buried in the bottom half of the conference, but considering where the Beavers started, an encouraging sign of development.

"We had a horrible start defensively in the first game when no part of our defense looked very good at all," Mike Riley said recently. "We had a lot of stuff to point at. Definitely, we've gotten better. Simply, we're sounder and we're tackling better. We're in better position in pass rush and coverage."

Fueling the unbroken and stabilizing growth exhibited by the Oregon State defense has been an opportunistic secondary. The Beavers are tied for first nationally with Missouri for most interceptions (14), five by JUCO transfer Steven Nelson, who is likewise tied for the national lead. No other Pac-12 team has more than 11 interceptions.

The pair of interception returns for touchdowns by Sean Martin (at Utah) and Nelson (at SD State) have tied the school's single season mark, and represent the most for a Beavers defense since 2008.

The byproduct of those picks? A plus-10 turnover margin for the Beavers, second best in the Pac-12 behind Oregon (plus-13). Ten of the 19 turnovers forced by Oregon State (all since the EWU game) have led directly to touchdowns. Conversely, the Beavers' defense has allowed just one touchdown following OSU's nine turnovers, and that came late in the fourth quarter of last weekend's blowout win over Cal.

Since the beginning of the 2012 season, Oregon State is plus-18 in turnover margin. Any question why OSU is 15-5 in the last 20 games?

Besides turnovers, Oregon State has also bore down on third down conversion percentage defense. Since Eastern Washington converted 5-of-10 third down opportunities, the last six opponents have converted just 30.9 percent (26-of-84) of third downs during the ongoing winning streak, including 31.7 percent (19-of-60) in the last four games.

Oregon State must continue to exhibit improvement on defense in Saturday's vital Pac-12 North battle with Stanford, or a Cardinal offense with a variety of weapons at its disposal, including wide receiver/kick returner Ty Montgomery, could be difficult to contain.

However, Stanford coach David Shaw believes his team must fight for every yard against the upgraded Beavers defense.

"They are really active," Shaw said earlier this week. "They know their defense inside and out. The guys are in great position. They gave up some big plays earlier in the year, but you just don't see that anymore. The secondary is keeping the ball in front of them. (Scott) Crichton and the guys up front are getting off blocks. They're playing very smart, very sound and very hard."

Possessing a 6-foot-2, 215-poind frame, Montgomery is built like a running back but possesses the blazing speed, agility and elusiveness of an elite wide receiver.

"He's pretty unique and very talented," Riley said. "He's changed a lot of games this year. He stepped up in a new way for them that has helped their team be able to throw it down the field to a guy like him and still pound you inside and run the quarterback. They have a lot of weapons. (Montgomery) is a very unique athlete."

After facing the 'Air Raid' offensive schemes of Cal and Washington State in the last two weeks, Stanford's pro-style, run-dominated attack presents a 180-degree turn in offensive philosophy for Oregon State defensive coordinator Mark Banker and his unit.

"It's a fun league we're in. We've played two teams that have thrown the ball well over 100 (combined) times against us in the last two weeks," Riley said. "Now we're going to play somebody that emphasizes power football. They might have everybody at times lined up between the hashes.

"Then we have to be sound on their play action stuff, which is a big part of their game. We're going to have to play real sound physical football. We have to play smart and hard and for a long time against these guys. The variety of defenses you have to play is so different from week to week."

When Riley watches the Stanford defense on video, he sees a rugged, physical defense that he desires the Beavers to emulate.

"They have such a good front," Riley said. "If you play too much one dimension football with them, it becomes very difficult. It would sure be nice if we could find a consistent running game to complement what else we need to be able to do to win. It would really help us if we could find some balance."


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