CORVALLIS — Oregon State got the defensive stop it needed to have a chance at beating Eastern Washington on Saturday — but that was the only one the 25th-ranked Beavers managed.
OSU made the Eagles, ranked fourth nationally in the lower-level Football Championship Subdivision, punt just once during a 49-46 nonconference loss at Reser Stadium. That helped the Beavers rally from a 12-point halftime deficit into a third-quarter lead; hold once more and the suddenly clicking Oregon State offense might have kept OSU in front the rest of the way.
It never happened. Eastern Washington, which had scored on its first six possessions, punched in touchdowns on its last three to score the upset. The Eagles — national semifinalists last season — shredded OSU's defense for 625 yards.
A year ago, the Beavers had allowed averages of just 20.6 points and 354 yards per game in posting a 9-4 record. Saturday, those performances seemed a distant memory.
"Until we fix it, there's a major concern," OSU head coach Mike Riley said of his team's defense. "Until we get in better position, tackle better, make some plays "¦ that quarterback (EWU's Vernon Adams Jr.) really made some unbelievable escape plays, bought time and just executed so well that we have a lot to look at to work to get better. That's a good way to put it."
Riley rattled off some of the Beavers' defensive shortcomings against the Eagles: not being in position to make plays, not tackling well, not taking advantage of opportunities to get Eastern Washington's offense off the field, etc.
"I think the thing started early in the game when we had them third-and-14 and we bust a coverage and they throw the ball deep down the field, kind of just a prayer, and nobody from our team is there," Riley said. "I think it just started off kind of like that and got worse."
OSU was missing junior linebacker D.J. Alexander due to a knee injury, and other injuries during fall camp prevented the Beavers from live scrimmages — and live tackling — in the weeks leading up to the opener.
"That's not an excuse," senior cornerback Rashaad Reynolds said. "We've played football for a long time so that's something we should know how to do. It was sloppy out there today and we've got to clean that up."
Reynolds is part of a secondary expected to be one of OSU's strengths this season, even having seen Jordan Poyer graduate and head for the National Football League. Saturday, those returning defensive backs struggled to cover EWU's receivers as Adams and backup Anthony Vitto passed for 448 yards.
"Our performance wasn't good obviously," Reynolds said. "If you watched the game I think that will tell you everything. As far as what went wrong, nothing. Eastern Washington came in here and played a good game and we didn't play to our potential."
DÉJÀ VU?: Saturday's result didn't bring completely unfamiliar feelings for anyone who has been with Oregon State's program for the past two seasons. In 2011, the Beavers opened their season against FCS-level Sacramento State and were beaten 29-28.
That season spiraled into a 3-9 nightmare for Oregon State. After Saturday's loss, the Beavers were asked why this year could be different, what lessons could be taken from that defeat.
"A lot of the guys who went through that are still on this team, I think that's one reason. At the same time, I think our team's mentality is just, 'We're not going to let anything get in the way,'" OSU junior quarterback Sean Mannion said. "Rashaad said something in the locker room: there are two ways we can go with this, we can either lay down or we can stand up and overcome it and work even harder than we have, and obviously that's the route we're going to take."
The first positive Riley and his players pointed to was the Beavers fighting through adversity in the loss. By halftime, it looked like EWU might blow Oregon State off its own field but the Beavers came back to turn it into a seesaw game. After the Eagles scored the go-ahead touchdown with 18 seconds left, the Beavers responded by moving downfield far enough to allow Trevor Romaine's 52-yard field goal attempt that was wide right.
"I thought we just kept playing," Riley said. "I think that can all bode well for the Beavers if we just work on and improve some of the shortcomings we showed today."
As the Beaver defense struggled to slow Eastern Washington's offense, Oregon State was putting up numbers that will win most games: 46 points and 527 yards of total offense. But there would be no finger pointing, no blaming the guys on one side of the ball for the loss; Mannion and junior tight end Connor Hamlett seemed to be of the mind that if the defense gave up 49 points, it was their job to score 50.
"There's no blame on this game — it's on everyone," said Hamlett, who had eight catches for 85 yards and a touchdown. "There are a few plays I messed up. It's nice to see we put up some big points, but we've got to play as a team and we didn't get the job done."
MANNION'S THE MAN: Since the middle of the 2012 season, Oregon State's starting quarterback spot has been up for grabs between Mannion and senior Cody Vaz, with the two often splitting time during games. Mannion was finally announced as the starter this past week, and he responded by completing 37 of 43 passes for 422 yards and three touchdowns without being intercepted.
"There was some good and bad," Mannion said. "I tried to be accurate, tried to take good care of the ball. I think I missed a few plays. You never want to have a three-and-out and I've got to take that on myself, I think we had two of those in the first half and I think that kind of left our defense hanging."
He completed passes to seven different receivers, including 13 to junior flanker Brandin Cooks for 196 yards and two touchdowns, eight to Hamlett for 85 yards and a touchdown and eight for 44 yards to sophomore tailback Storm Woods.
"I thought he was efficient throwing the football and he spread the ball around really well," Riley said. "He made a bunch of nice plays and had a good variety, he seemed to be seeing things really well."
EXTRA POINTS: OSU cracked the century mark on the ground, rushing for 105 net yards with Woods picking up 68 of those. Big plays weren't part of the mix: the Beavers' longest run was only 9 yards. "¦ In season-opening games, Oregon State now has an all-time record of 62-45-8. This is the 60th anniversary of Reser Stadium's 1953 opening (when it was known as Parker Stadium), and OSU is 37-24 in its Corvallis openers during that time. "¦ Saturday was the first time both OSU and its opponent had scored 40 or more points since the Beavers beat Georgia Southern (also a FCS school) 48-41 on Sept. 18, 1999. "¦ Cooks' 13 catches and 196 yards were both career highs. The 13 catches matches the second-most in a game in OSU history (Shane Morales, 2008 at Stanford; record is 14 by Mike Hass, 2004 at Arizona State) and the 196 yards is the ninth-highest total in school history.