OSU defense gets past shaky start
Coaches test out player rotations and a nickel package
CORVALLIS - Oregon State's defense has been so strong the past two weeks, does it have a chance to develop into the best one defensive coordinator Mark Banker has had at the school?
'Two weeks ago, we were the lousiest,' Banker says, snarling through a grin. 'I'll hold comment on that for a while.'
But Oregon State goes into Saturday's game at Arizona with defensive momentum after quality performances in a 13-6 loss to Washington State and a 27-17 victory over Washington. Interceptions provided the Huskies with short fields on both their TDs; the Beavers shut them out in the second half.
'It's much more mental than physical,' says Banker, 50, who was Mike Riley's secondary coach during the head coach's first stint at OSU (1997 and '98) and has served as D-coordinator the past four years. 'The guys' pace of play has been much faster. Their reactions are better, crisper.'
A year ago, Oregon State ranked last in the Pac-10 with 22 sacks. This season, the Beavers are second nationally with 23 after collecting 11 the past two games. They are third in the Pac-10 in total defense and third nationally in defending against third-down conversions.
Three of the reasons:
• New defensive line coach Joe Seumalo is rotating 10 - that's right, 10 - players in and out of the four positions. Starters Joe Lemma and Jeff Van Orsow are backed by Dorian Smith, Victor Butler and Naymon Frank at end. Starters Ben Siegert and Curtis Coker get help from Gerard Lee, Pernnell Booth and William Akau'ola Vea at tackle.
To a lesser extent, linebacker coach Greg Newhouse is doing the same thing, complementing starters Derrick Doggett, Alan Darlin and Joey LaRocque with reserves Eric Moala Liava'a, Dennis Christopher, Bryant Cornell and Isaiah Cook.
'Guys are staying fresh, and we're getting more ownership this way,' Riley says. 'More guys feel like starters. They're buying into their roles and getting excited about it.'
And, of the aforementioned 17 players, only Lemma and Siegert are seniors.
• Five junior-college transfers have come on - Smith, Lee, Vea (who redshirted in '05), LaRocque and cornerback Coye Francies.
LaRocque has struggled to fill the big shoes of Keith Ellison, now with the Buffalo Bills. But LaRocque's game came of age against Washington State, Banker says. The 6-2, 230-pound junior ranks third on the team in tackles with 29.
Smith looked slow at the start of the season. In recent games, the 6-3, 260-pound junior has been as effective as any OSU lineman. He has a team-high 3 1/2 sacks, five tackle-for-losses and a forced fumble.
'Dorian has jumped off the charts,' Banker says. 'We could see it coming in practice. All of a sudden, he must have said, 'A light came on. I got it. Here we go.' He's been hell on wheels.'
Francies had his best game against Washington, entering after the first play from scrimmage when starting cornerback Keenan Lewis was injured. Even if Lewis is able to play Saturday, Francies will start.
• Through the years, Banker has resisted using a nickel package. The coaches have slowly implemented it this fall, and unveiled it in the WSU game on seven plays. Against Washington, Oregon State used the nickel for 22 of 73 Husky snaps.
'Out of those 22 plays, the Huskies had five plays for positive yardage,' Banker says. 'We haven't had the personnel in the past to do it. We were lucky to have two cornerbacks a year.'
The nickel has given the Beavers a chance to work reserve safeties Bryan Payton and Daniel Drayton into games. Payton started and Drayton filled the nickel role with Al Afalava (concussion) out against Washington. Afalava is expected to reclaim his starting job against Arizona, 'but Drayton got his feet wet,' Riley says. 'And who knows? Some day, we may have a dime package in there.'