Oregon State defense gets off the canvas

Oregon State's defense has gone from bad to mediocre. With the Beavers offense rolling up 44 points and 516 yards per game, that improvement has been good enough to help get them 6-1 and a No. 25 ranking in the BCS standings.

The question is whether that will be good enough for the Beavers to continue to win as the schedule ramps up considerably, starting with a visit from No. 6 Stanford on Saturday.

Or maybe the defense takes another step, as in from mediocre to pretty good? That could change the complexion of the North division race in the Pac-12.

The start certainly was horrendous. The Beavers yielded 49 points and 625 yards in a shocking opening day loss to Eastern Washington, an FCS team. Fans quickly forgot that the Beavers had one of the best defenses in the Pac-12 a season before and began yelling for coordinator Mark Banker's head.

The criticism wasn't completely unfair. The Beavers weren't just giving up points and yards, they were out of position and tackling poorly. Worst of all: The scheme, at least how it was being executed by a unit that welcomed back seven starters, looked unsound.

Things didn't immediately get better either, particularly if you throw out a 33-14 win over Hawaii, which is winless and might be the nation's worst FBS teams. The Beavers gave up 48 points to Utah in Week 3 and 30 to a middling San Diego State offense in Week 4.

After four games, the Beavers ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in both scoring defense (37 points per game) and total defense (467.7 yards per game).

But the Beavers have yielded just 19.3 points per game over the past three games -- against arguably better offenses -- and 349.7 yards per game. Those numbers would both rank third in the conference. That has boosted their season averages to 28.4 ppg and 396.7 ypg, totals that rank ninth and eight in the conference.

The improvement wasn't lost on California coach Sonny Dykes, whose pass-happy offense stagnated against the Beavers in a 49-17 loss over the weekend. Yet Dykes said he knew the Bears wouldn't face the same defense that Eastern Washington sliced and diced and made look pretty ridiculous.

"You could see it week-to-week," he said of watching Oregon State game film. "It was obvious from Week 1 to what they are doing now, they are playing with much more confidence, triggering faster. It looked to me like they simplified their scheme a little bit. They were doing a lot against Eastern Washington and it looked to me like things got a little more simple. Their players seemed to settle in a little bit better."

Simplifying the scheme surely helped. It probably cleared defenders' heads and allowed them to correct the most glaring and embarrassing issue.

"The biggest thing is their tackling has improved," Dykes said. "They didn't tackle particularly well early in the year. You can see them tackle better every week."

Being in position and tackling are critical for a defense, but the Beavers also started being opportunistic. In the first three games, they forced just four turnovers. In the last four, they forced 15, including four against Cal.

Stanford coach David Shaw sees a big difference.

"They gave up some big plays early in the year but you just don't see that anymore," he said. "You see the secondary keeping the ball in front of them. You see [DE Scott Crichton] and the guys up front getting off blocks. They are playing really smart and really sound and really hard."

Of course, Stanford's offense offers a much different challenge than the pass-happy spread offenses the Beavers have faced during their horrible start and then defensive renaissance. The Cardinal wants to own the line of scrimmage and play smash mouth football and then hit you over the top with play-action passing.

That sort of thinking was on full-display against UCLA. Stanford played conservatively on offense, allowing its defense to do the heavy lifting against the Bruins. Then the UCLA defense wore down in the fourth quarter.

The Bruins have a bigger, deeper front seven than the Beavers, who lost top linebacker Michael Doctor the second week of the season to an ankle injury and are questionable on the interior defensive line.

Still, the Beavers held the Cardinal to just 165 yards rushing in last season's 27-23 loss at Stanford and they are statistically strong against the run, ranking fourth in the conference in rushing defense. It does need to be said that Colorado, Cal and Washington State have three of the worst running offenses in the nation (along with Oregon State, by the way). Utah rushed for 260 yards in its overtime loss to the Beavers.

Mediocre defense might not be enough to beat the Cardinal. But pretty good defense probably would give gun-slinging QB Sean Mannion a good shot at the upset on Saturday.