Following a surprising and disappointing 3-9 season in Corvallis, it seemed hard for many – fans and media alike -- to have a lot of optimism heading into the 2012 season for Oregon State. The 2011 season was doomed from the start, no doubt. However, one of the lackluster parts about the worst season under Mike Riley was the team’s defense. Or, lack thereof.
Statistically, Mark Banker’s crew ranked 7th in the Pac-12 in total defense a year ago. They gave up 411.3 yards per game, the highest it has been in the last four seasons. OSU’s rush defense was dead last and flat out embarrassing, giving up 196.83 yards per contest -- something Banker and Beavers' fans have not grown accustom to seeing.
No matter for Banker, though. As the season had progressed and the Beavers lost four of their final five games, including a drubbing (49-21) to their rival Oregon, the defensive mastermind only saw hope heading into this season.
“That’s what it was, it was hope.” Defensive coordinator Mark Banker said over the phone, Tuesday after practice. “One big thing about last year, players kept playing and there were certain individuals that were showing signs of things to come.”
Now, a year later, with a lot of the same pieces coming back (8 starters total), Oregon State is giving up just 53.50 rushing yards per game, currently ranking second in the Pac-12 behind Stanford (41.67). So what’s changed?
“The fact that we didn’t want the same result from last year is evident in our play.” Said senior cornerback Ryan Handford. “I feel like our bond as a defense, communication, and our attitude as far as taking everything one week at a time, and everyone doing their job, is producing results we felt could be done.”
One of the things OSU might have going for them is that illustrious mix of youth and experience. Both of their starting cornerbacks returned, while the outside linebackers and defensive ends are three sophomores and a junior.
“The mixture is good, because we still have just a handful of seniors.” Said Banker. “We get representation at each level of defense with leadership. The way they (veterans) play, and the infusion of younger guys that do possess talent to play right away, also helps.”
The Beavers are just two games into the season, and have had one of the most unusual starts in the country. Their first game was postponed due to a hurricane and later rescheduled for December – a game that could actually have some significance to it – they then had an extra week of practices to prepare for then No. 13 ranked Wisconsin. A team, albeit lost some offensive linemen and a starting NFL QB, that slaughtered them on national TV a year ago.
Most of the pundits thought the Badgers might be too much for OSU.
However, Oregon State shut down, and eliminated any running threat for ex-Heisman hopeful Montee Ball and Wisconsin. Holding the Badgers to just 35 rushing yards, which was 173 yards less than virtually the same group had allowed a year ago in Madison. The Beavers had offensive concerns throughout, but the defense carried the team to a 10-7 win, and what felt like a big sigh of relief in the form of a hug between the head coach and defensive coordinator.
Fans were elated, players were jubilant, a Badger coach was fired, but some still weren’t sure if it was fools gold. Wisconsin (3-1) had narrowly escaped Northern Iowa a week prior, and some questions were raised about then starting QB Danny O’Brien – a transfer from Maryland.
So, once again, the Beavers were dismissed as an anomaly and had to prepare for a lethal running attack at UCLA with another Heisman hopeful, Johnathan Franklin. Pasadena had been a nightmare, traditionally, for the Beavers. In fact, heading into last weekend’s match-up, the Beavers had beaten the Bruins on the road just four times since Mike Riley was born (1953).
UCLA was coming into the game 3-0 with a big time win over a ranked Nebraska team, highly publicized redshirt freshman QB, and a chip on their shoulder. Once again, OSU was the underdog with a lot to prove, not only to skeptical analysts and fans, but also to themselves.
“We don’t play for the media,” Handford said. “We play for our school, ourselves, fans, and families each player represents.”
“All we have is each other.”
Oregon State went into the Rose Bowl and absolutely dominated the Bruins. Offensively they were able to move the ball through the air with ease and set up an improved running game that included RS freshman Storm Woods scoring his first touchdown, but the difference was the D.
Two weeks after setting the tone in Reser, they did the same in So Cal. UCLA, who led the country in rushing yards -- per game -- going in, never got it going. Franklin was contained to just 45 rushing yards, and mobile QB Brett Hundley to 32. The corners contained the screens, the ‘backers spied perfectly, and Scott Crichton showed how fast he could be.
The win silenced any fans who may have had doubts against a spread offense, and showed that this defensive unit has better chemistry, is faster, and is looking to save face after a humiliating showing all last year; something that perpetuated fans to put the coordinators on the proverbial hot seat.
But neither players nor Banker were buying it during the offseason.
“We were just worried about getting better, we weren’t thinking about any of that.” Handford said.
“I didn’t blink one time.” Banker said. “When you compete, one team wins one team loses. We didn’t win enough games. Its disappointment, yeah, but you have to move on.”
“I do know this, last season never killed our spirit at all.”
Oregon State is now top three in five of the six statistical defensive categories (rushing yards, pass yards, plays, total yards, and yards per game). The team is No. 3 overall in the Pac-12 and 32nd nationally, in team defense. It’s been impressive, to say the least.
I’m not ready to anoint this team’s D among one of the schools all-time. There are former players and teams that worked hard and consistently for an entire year to earn that kind of reputation. So I’ll wait.
But I am buying what I’ve seen thus far. This team’s playing for a fallen teammate (Fred Thompson), playing for pride, and more importantly, playing together. It comes at a time when it was needed the most, and in typical Oregon State fashion, when nobody expected.