Oregon State's D emerges against Wisconsin

Oregon State's D emerges against Wisconsin
Oregon State's D.J. Welch (4) and Jordan Poyer (14) defend against Wisconsin's James White (20) during the second half of their NCAA college football game in Corvallis, Ore., Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/ Greg Wahl-Stephens)

CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) — After struggling all of last season, Oregon State's defense appears to have righted itself.

The Beavers made a season-opening statement with a 10-7 victory over then-No. 13 Wisconsin last weekend — holding last year's Big Ten champions scoreless until the final minutes.

"We played a helluva game and from the d-line to the linebackers to the secondary everybody was making plays," cornerback Jordan Poyer said. "That's the type of defense we want to be this season."

Oregon State shut down the Badgers' fearsome running back, Montee Ball, a Heisman finalist last season, holding him to 61 uneventful yards. Overall, the Beavers held Wisconsin to 35 yards rushing and 207 yards of total offense.

"That defense worked their tails off this fall camp," Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks said. "I knew they were going to come in and do something special. ... That defense is running around with fire."

Coach Mike Riley agreed.

"It was just a great performance. Guys were very sound. I think one of the key elements was that everyone worked hard and was winning off the block. Those are big guys (on the Wisconsin offensive line) but our defensive coaches had a great plan. When we got into situations where we threw in a nickel and dime defense we made some big plays and that combination is awesome," Riley said.

The effort was in marked contrast to those turned in by last year's overmatched — and often star-crossed — defensive squad.

The 2011 defense was too often slow, tentative and technically sloppy. It ranked 84th in the country overall, and yielded nearly 200 yards a game on the ground.

The Beavers were especially bad when the chips were down, ranking 10th in the conference on third-down and eighth in red zone defense.

There was also a lot of bad luck. Injuries haunted the defensive unit the entire season. In one game, five key defensive players were lost, and half of Oregon State's projected starters going into the season missed time at some point. Freshmen Scott Crichton, Dylan Wynn and Ryan Murphy emerged as playmakers but their inexperience led to mistakes.

Last Saturday, the Beavers seemed to have total control. Holes closed up as soon as they appeared. The linebackers were active and effective. Linebackers Feti Unga and D.J. Welch combined for 13 tackles and Welch earned Pac-12 defensive player of the week honors.

Oregon State also unveiled some new pressures and different looks. Unga was lined up deeper than last year. Poyer made a huge play by blindsiding Badgers quarterback Danny O'Brien on a corner blitz that caused a fumble. The Beavers sacked O'Brien three times.

Maybe the best sign of all was that the Beavers displayed an outward confidence — jawing, chest bumping, high-fiving and hugging — that they rarely had a reason to show last year.

It's been a slow decline since defensive coordinator Mark Banker's crew led the nation in run defense in 2007. One game does not indicate a complete turnaround but coaches have said the signs of real improvement have been unmistakable throughout camp and Poyer, one of four team captains, believes a corner has been turned.

"How good we can be is unlimited," he said. "It's just going to be determined on the work that we put in week in and week out and how bad we want it. We've just got a taste of it right here with this 'W.' We're going to keep working, keep grinding to be the best defense we could be."

Oregon State has this weekend off before visiting UCLA on Sept. 22.