No Pac-12 defense was as porous against the rush last season as Oregon State. No Pac-12 defense failed to defend the pass more than Arizona. Through four games, UA has trimmed more than 50 yards off its passing per game yield of 2011. The Wildcats' improvement in that facet has facilitated an all-around evolution in its defensive identity. Similarly, Oregon State has fed off the play of its front seven, letting a talented secondary squash opposing attacks.
Arizona's turnaround is the result of new defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel implementing the 3-3-5 odd stack, reassigning players to new positions and accentuating their individual talents. The explanation for Oregon State reversing course isn't quite as easy to pinpoint.
The same coordinator who has always been at head coach Mike Riley's side since 2003, Mark Banker, remains in charge of the unit. Banker made no dramatic alterations to the philosophy his Beavers employ. Yet, OSU transformed from a rush defense ranked No. 101 in the Bowl Subdivision, to No. 2. And the Beavers have done so in facing a team featuring a 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist running back in Wisconsin's Montee Ball, and an early 2012 Heisman contender in UCLA's Johnathan Franklin.
The Beavers' improvement is not unlike that of Texas, which in 2010 was uncharacteristically porous in that facet, but returned to the top 10 stopping the run in 2011. Young Beavers who saw ample playing time last season were baptized in Pac-12 Conference fires. Players like Scott Crichton and Michael Doctor came into 2012 with valuable experience to their credit, comparably to Texas' more veteran defense in 2011.
But Texas also changed coordinators between those seasons, and the Longhorns' evolving into top flight starters were ballyhooed recruits: four-and-five-star talents virtually guaranteed to break out. OSU entered the season with some notable defensive stars, namely Jordan Poyer and Crichton. But otherwise, the current Beavers are playing beyond initial expectations; out-kicking their coverage, if you will.
Riley's 2009 recruiting was ranked No. 9 by Scout.com. The 2010 class was dead last, and the 2011 crew was the recent big haul at a modest No. 7. These aren't players who arrived in Corvallis with much fanfare, but they're winning by buying into Banker's schemes, Riley's leadership, and the philosophy of old fashioned, hard nosed football.
UA sophomore running back Ka'Deem Carey is tasked with finding the answer to OSU's mysterious rush defense renaissance, something neither Ball nor Franklin could do. Lining up alongside capable rushing quarterback Matt Scott might seem an adequate balance to throw the Beavers just enough off pace, but OSU shut down UCLA's dual threat play maker Brett Hundley just a week ago.
That means the Wildcats likely face having to pass early and effectively to spread out the Beavers. Scott's certainly capable of doing so, the only Pac-12 quarterback with more completions per outing than OSU's Sean Mannion. However, in targeting his receivers Scott must be cognizant of the aforementioned secondary.
Poyer was among the most greedy defensive backs in the conference last season, intercepting four passes. This year, Ryan Murphy has a pick and Rashaad Reynolds has broken up two passes. Attacking the middle of the field by drawing the linebackers forward, then exploiting Austin Hill and Dan Buckner's size as he did against Oklahoma State is key for Scott.