Where has the defense gone?
It wasn’t too long ago that Oregon State was known for aggressive, tough defenses.
The 2000 team combined speed and attitude to take apart opponents. Take a look at the highlights from the Fiesta Bowl and watch the Beavers overwhelm Notre Dame as defensive ends LaDairis Jackson and DeLawrence Grant sprinted past blockers into the backfield and linebacker Darnell Robinson was named defensive player of the game after picking off a pass, recovering a fumble and sacking Fighting Irish quarterback Matt LoVecchio twice.
Jackson and Grant both played in the NFL, as did Eric Manning, Dwan Edwards, James Allen, Nick Barnett and Dennis Weathersby.
Today’s OSU defenses are a far cry from most of those playing between 2000 and 2012.
Maybe last Saturday’s 52-7 home loss to Utah wasn’t rock bottom for the Beavers, but it had to be close.
The run defense continues to be a problem.
The Utes rushed for 256 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown run by Zack Moss, who spun away from safety Shawn Wilson at the line of scrimmage and then raced into the clear untouched as every other OSU defender was apparently blocked or out of position.
The pass defense hasn’t been any better. The Utes threw for 247 yards and two touchdowns.
Yes, the Beavers had little success on offense against Utah. But that aspect of OSU’s game has not been an issue this season.
The defense has been a disaster. The tough part of the equation to swallow is that the Beavers have made significant strides in certain areas.
One category that has seen strong improvement is tackles for loss. The Beavers now have 46 stops behind the line of scrimmage for 175 yards lost. That includes 12 sacks. OSU even had seven against Utah for minus-17 yards. Last season the Beavers had 53 for 217.
Hamilcar Rashed Jr. leads the way with 10.5 TFLs and six sacks.
Those plays are definitely a foundation of a strong defense. Unfortunately, the Beavers still lag far behind in other areas.
They are 86th nationally in passing yards allowed with 245.3 yards a game and 110th in rushing defense, giving up 205.7 yards a game.
OSU is 109th out of 130 teams in total defense at 451 yards a game. That’s a slight step up from 2018, but not enough to slow many offenses.
There is a direct correlation between the defensive performance and the final record.
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The Beavers were 18th nationally during that Fiesta Bowl season and finished 11-1. They were 28th nationally in 2002 and finished 8-5 with a loss to Pittsburgh in the Insight Bowl.
No. 47 in 2003 and 51st in 2004 were adequate to get the Beavers to 8-5 and 7-5. A 54th-place finish in 2006 was good enough to help the Beavers to a 10-4 season and a Sun Bowl win.
In 2007 the Beavers finished 9-4 and defeated Maryland in the Emerald Bowl with a total defense that ranked No. 33, and 47th in 2008 enabled a 9-4 season.
The Beavers hit their second-highest ranking in 2012 at 22nd and the result was a 9-4 record and a trip to the Alamo Bowl.
It is evident that a defense good enough to land in the top 55 should be able to get a team to a winning record in most cases.
So why the defensive drop off? There are a variety of reasons.
This is a little more complicated than saying the Beavers lack the talent to compete. It’s not as if they are limited to playing one- or two-star players and backing them up with walk-ons. No, this defense has plenty of three-star players and a four-star or two.
The scheme is not a major factor in OSU’s defensive downfall, but how it is utilized during game situations definitely can have an adverse effect.
Lack of depth is an ongoing issue and combined with injuries can be devastating. Landing quality players to build depth is also tough. Many athletes would rather play on offense and make big plays with the ball instead of big hits.
A leader on that side the ball is also paramount. In 2012, the Beavers had Jordan Poyer. It is unclear who that player is on the current team. Jalen Moore is one possibility, but injuries have limited his time on the field to two games.
The beginnings go back to the arrival of Chip Kelly’s offense, which focused on mismatches and featured athletic quarterbacks able to hurt defenses with the ability to run for big gainers, often on pass plays when receivers are covered.
Now those QBs are common throughout the country.
The program has not had the continuity at defensive coordinator that it needs to build a strong identity on that side of the ball.
Mark Banker’s teams were up and down, but the highs were pretty impressive. When Gary Andersen arrived in Corvallis, he made what most likely was a home run hire at DC in Kalani Sitake. But Sitake was gone to BYU after one season and Kevin Clune stepped in, to little success.
Now it’s Tim Tibesar’s time to right the ship and there’s been baby steps and not much more.
Should the Beavers go in another direction at the end of the season? No. Tibesar needs at least another season to show some significant improvement.
If that doesn’t happen, OSU should go all-in on hiring a proven coordinator.