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Beavers defense aims to stop slide against WSU

CORVALLIS — Mike Riley was asked Sunday about his biggest defensive concerns coming out of Oregon State’s 45-31 loss to California. And Mike Riley made a list.

— Defenders often were not in the right spot to make the tackle. And even when they were, too many times they did not finish the takedown.

— An inability to contain quarterback Jared Goff on the run, causing too many successful pass plays once he had been flushed out of the pocket.

— Improper technique, such as eyes in the wrong spot and poor positioning on the receiver, by defensive backs on short passing routes.

Really, though, it all boils down to this:

“Basically, it’s all doing your job,” Riley said, “and so the coaching details are going to be big in doing that ... we’ve got to continue to coach aggressiveness, but we’ve got to be right. “

So that’s the task facing the Beavers this week. An OSU defense that was once regarded as one of the Pac-12’s best is slipping fast, following two consecutive dud performances against Cal and Stanford (a 38-10 rout). Up next? Washington State’s pass-happy Air Raid attack, which leads the nation in passing offense (478.3 yards per game) and ranks sixth in total offense (522.9 yards per game).

A quick glimpse of how OSU’s numbers have changed. The Beavers entered the Stanford game two weeks ago ranked in the top 25 nationally in five prominent defensive categories — total defense (25th), pass defense (11th), third-down defense (14th), pass efficiency defense (fourth) and opponent first downs (20th). Now, the Beavers only remain that high in pass efficiency defense (10th) and have dropped at least 21 spots in those other four categories.

A day after Riley made his list of defensive deficiencies, coordinator Mark Banker was also asked about his biggest concerns and needed corrections.

Banker first mentioned the positives from the Cal game: the improved energy and physicality compared to a flat first half against Stanford; the way the Beavers handled the Golden Bears’ up-tempo style; and that for nearly 50 minutes of the contest OSU held a Cal offense averaging more than 41 points per game to just 27.

But Banker zeroed in on third down, where OSU allowed Cal to convert 11 of 19 tries. The coach often blamed himself, noting the times he put his players in a bad spot with a passing call on what turned out to be a run play. That made it difficult for the linebackers to rally back to stop the ball carrier, for the defensive ends to quickly flip from trying to rush the passer to getting back inside and for the defensive backs to communicate and get into their run stopping assignments rather that playing the pass.

Banker also pointed to missed opportunities, such as safety Ryan Murphy’s dropped interception (and possible pick-six) on a drive that ultimately ended in a Cal touchdown. And missed tackles, a troubling theme throughout the past two games that Banker hopes can be fixed with a “constant reminder and the constant work” rather than an overdose of extra drills during practice this week. Additionally, the Beavers faltered down the stretch by allowing 18 points in 12 minutes.

“We weren’t able to close out,” Banker said “... again, it’s heart-wrenching. At the same time, our attitude and our stick-to-it (focus) and heart and all those kinds of things are gonna be fully on display as we go forward.”

That starts this weekend against Washington State, which will be missing standout quarterback Connor Halliday but will still throw the ball in bunches.

Though the Cougars won’t try to gash OSU with a traditional rushing attack like Cal, their concept of essentially using short pass plays as run plays still makes tackling in space crucial. New starting quarterback Luke Falk is less experienced than Halliday, but he is also more mobile, meaning the Beavers can’t let him buy too much extra time with his legs. A deep corps of receivers — Vince Mayle, Isiah Myers, River Cracraft and Dominique William have each compiled at least 500 receiving yards and six touchdowns — means all of OSU’s defensive backs (not just shutdown cornerback Steven Nelson) need to play well.

“DBs start slobbering over that you know they’re gonna pass,” safety Cyril Noland-Lewis said. “That’s their offense. We just have to be sound in the backfield, just have confidence in the pass rush, and hopefully we can make some plays on the ball and get some turnovers.”