Oregon State defense will be tested by Cincinnati

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

The sample size is too small -- two games, one vs. an FCS foe -- to know whether Oregon State's rebuilt defense will be up to program standards in 2009, but a stress test rolls into Corvallis on Saturday that should be quite revealing.

No. 17 Cincinnati runs a no-huddle spread that presently ranks second in the nation in scoring (58.5 points per game) and fifth in total yards (571 yards per game).

"It's basketball on grass," Beavers defensive coordinator Mark Banker said.

Oregon State welcomes back only three defensive starters from the 2008 unit that ranked near the top of the Pac-10 in most categories. Of course, the situation was exactly the same -- just three starters back from an outstanding 2007 unit -- in 2008.

So many Beavers fans are counting on a reload rather than a rebuild, in large part because Banker's gap-cancellation scheme has been so consistently productive in recent years.

The early returns are cautiously optimistic.

Banker is happy with the play of his defensive tackles and linebackers. Both ends are new, and Kevin Frahm has played well. Ben Terry and Gabe Miller are still learning the position.

Just one quarterback sack so far for a team that thrives on pressuring the quarterback is a concern.

The secondary has four new starters and there have been some good moments. And bad moments.

"We're OK -- this week will be a better overall evaluation," Banker said. "We need to play with more confidence, and if they do that I think you'll see guys make more plays on the ball."

The Beavers got their first pick -- from safety Lance Mitchell -- in their 23-21 win at UNLV.

The Bearcats should offer a stout challenge because quarterback Tony Pike, a 6-foot-6 senior gunslinger, has been outstanding thus far. He ranks fourth in the nation in pass efficiency and has thrown for 591 yards and six touchdowns with just one interception. He picked apart Big East favorite Rutgers in a 47-15 road victory, establishing the Bearcats as the conference's team to beat.

"I think Pike is as good a quarterback as there is," Banker said. "He's accurate. He's got great vision. The ball is out quick."

Pike does get flustered under pressure at times -- he tossed 11 interceptions last year -- but a defense is playing a high risk-reward game if it blitzes against the Bearcats' four- and five-receiver sets.

"With that gun, you better get there quick because he's going to see you coming and get it off," Banker said.

Then Pike's capable receivers -- Mardy Gilyard is one of the best in the Big East -- take over with the ball in space and a defender is forced to make an open-field tackle.

While the Bearcats pass first, they also are averaging 197 yards rushing per game. If the Beavers can't stop the run, they are in trouble.

And if Pike gets time to throw, it could be a long afternoon.

"No. 1, we've got to match their tempo," Banker said.

On the plus side, the Beavers have won 26 consecutive nonconference home games. Coach Mike Riley is 17-0 in such games.

On the footnote-to-that side, Cincinnati is the first ranked team not presently in the Pac-10 to visit Corvallis since 1977, when the Beavers beat No. 13 BYU.

And what might Oregon State do with a fast start?

If the Beavers defense is, indeed, reloading and the offense has its way with a rebuilding Bearcats defense -- just one returning starter -- then Oregon State will be 3-0 after starting the previous three seasons 2-3.