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Originally published Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 8:00 PM

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Can Washington solve charmed Oregon State defense?

Struggling Huskies host Beavers team with Pac-12 stingiest defense.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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In its charmed season, Oregon State is off to its best start in school history.

The only other time the Beavers were 6-0, the school nestled in the Willamette Valley was known as the Oregon Agricultural College in 1907.

The winning has brought national exposure to a team that began the season with low expectations after its 3-9 finish last year.

Defensive coordinator Mark Banker has noticed larger crowds at practice.

"Every week it's grown," he said. "The media is here and the posse is continuing to grow and they want to be a part of it because all of sudden, they say, well, maybe there's something going on down there in Corvallis.

"I'm hearing the same talk and I'm seeing the same attitude on the field as far as the way they approach their business."

It hasn't been difficult for the Beavers to remain humble and stick to routines that have propelled them to No. 7 in the BCS poll.

Their winning formula has included a heavy dose of the stingiest defense in the Pac-12 and stellar performances from quarterbacks Sean Mannion and backup Cody Vaz.

Less than three weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a meniscus in his left knee, Mannion returns and replaces Vaz, who has two victories under his belt.

Even with Mannion in place and guiding the 12th-ranked passing offense in the nation in this 7:15 p.m. Pac-12 football game Saturday against Washington (3-4) at CenturyLink Field, the Beavers expect a close battle.

Oregon State's average victory margin is less than 10 points (26.2 to 16.5), and only one victory — a 42-24 triumph at Brigham Young — has been a blowout.

In its season opener, Oregon State squeaked out a 10-7 victory over Wisconsin. The next week, the Beavers knocked off UCLA 27-20 before surviving a 38-35 shootout against Arizona. Washington State and Utah also kept things close before falling 19-6 and 21-7, respectively.

In some ways, the close calls have galvanized a defense that allows just 16.5 points a game, fewest in the Pac-12.

"What it does is it makes everybody pay attention," Banker said. "There's no time to stray. You stay focused. I'd rather see our offense score 100 points, but at the same time there has not been a lack of suspense within our games."

At home, the Beavers defense has allowed a total of 20 points in three games. However, opponents have been able to score points on them outside Reser Stadium. Oregon State is allowing an average of 26.3 points on the road.

"This is a very tough defense," Washington quarterback Keith Price said. "Very good pass rush, good secondary, experienced secondary. It's going to be fun."

Solving Oregon State's defense means finding a way to slow down sophomore defensive end Scott Crichton and staying away from senior cornerback Jordan Poyer.

Crichton, a former standout at Tacoma's Foss High School, is tied for the Pac-12 lead with eight sacks, while Poyer is tied for second in the nation with five interceptions.

"Jordan and Scott are the leaders of our defense because both of those guys are competitors who like to be physical," said senior cornerback Anthony Watkins, who played at Highline in Burien. "That's the personality of this defense. Everybody just does their job, and we've got a bunch of hard-nosed, tough, physical guys.

"We don't get caught up in any of that other stuff. Our main thing is (to) prevent the other team from scoring any way possible, and that's worked for us."

After consecutive losing seasons, coach Mike Riley began the year on the hot seat.

Now he's a strong candidate for Pac-12 Coach of the Year, and Oregon State is one of 10 unbeaten teams in the rankings with serious Rose Bowl aspirations.

"I've been coaching 37 years and been on a roller coaster at different times in my career," Riley said. "(I've) won championships and then lost. Had seasons like last year where we won three games, so I'm fairly realistic about both the reaction and what we need to do.

"It's always good to just remain focused on the work and not on everything that's going on outside of it."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @percyallen


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