(Here is a story from Gary Horowitz of the Salem (Ore.) Statesman Journal, one of our Gannett partners. For coverage of the Arizona’s opponent this week, check out the Statesman Journal’s Oregon State Beavers’ page.)
By Gary Horowitz
CORVALLIS — Oregon State is unbeaten, nationally ranked, and features the second-best run defense in college football.
The 18th-ranked Beavers have much to feel good about heading into Saturday’s game at Arizona. But there is no sense from players that this team has arrived.
“If we’re 18th in the nation, there’s still 17 teams better than us,” cornerback Jordan Poyer said. “We want to be that No. 1 team, so we’re gonna keep working to get our goals and dreams.”
That kind of attitude should keep the Beavers grounded. After all, this is a program that has endured back-to-back losing seasons, including last year’s 3-9 slide to the precipice of rock bottom.
While the 2011 season is in the past, Poyer said it has contributed to early success in 2012.
“We keep that in the back of our head as motivation,” Poyer said. “We wanna keep going, keep getting better.”
After victories against then-Top 25 teams Wisconsin and UCLA, OSU will be tested by the Wildcats, who opened the season 3-0 before stumbling last week in a 49-0 loss at then-No. 3 Oregon.
Despite the lopsided defeat, Arizona trailed just 13-0 at halftime. An inability to turn six possessions in the red zone into points, and five turnovers was way too much to overcome against Oregon in Eugene.
“Obviously they took a big loss the other day, but we’ve got to expect them to come out with the best Arizona team,” flanker Brandin Cooks said. “They’re gonna try to come out and smack us in the mouth and we just can’t let it happen.”
Defense has been the Beavers’ strength thus far. OSU leads the nation in opponent third-down conversion (21.0 percent) and is second against the run (53.5 yards per game).
“You can tell the guys understand what they’re doing,” first-year Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “I’m really impressed with how they get off blocks and how well they’ve been tackling.”
The game could turn into an aerial circus. OSU’s Sean Mannion and Arizona’s Matt Scott rank one-two in the Pac-12 in passing yard per game, and Scott is eighth nationally in total offense.
Rodriguez brought the spread option to the desert and Scott has been an ideal fit to run it with his passing and running skills.
The Wildcats also feature running back Ka’Deem Carey (105.8 yards per game), who is third in the conference in rushing.
“The score was definitely deceiving in that (Oregon game),” OSU defensive end Dylan Wynn said. “All their trips into the red zone. They have a very strong offense with a lot of tools.”
The Beavers have weapons of their own.
In addition to Mannion, Cooks is third nationally in receiving yards per game (127.5) and split end Markus Wheaton is fifth (118.5). They had a combined 15 receptions for 325 yards and two touchdowns in the 27-20 win at UCLA. Storm Woods ran for 96 yards and a touchdown.
OSU coach Mike Riley downplayed the Beavers five-game winning streak at Arizona Stadium. OSU has won 11 of the past 13 games in the series.
“History is fine, everybody can look at it,” Riley said. “But it really doesn’t have any bearing on this game.”
What matters is how both teams play Saturday.
The Wildcats could have self-doubt after the Oregon game, while confidence figures to be high for the Beavers. OSU has already proven it can win on the road.
“If you’re winning, you’re always gonna be confident,” linebacker Michael Doctor said. “It looks like our team is headed in the right direction.”