Oregon State fired its defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar with just three games left in the regular season, but the most mind-blowing part is that the Beavers' defense was having its best statistical season in quite a while.
Through the first nine games of the season, Oregon State was allowing 405.7 total yards per game, which, if the season had ended at that point, would have been its lowest total since 2012.
However, in the two games since Tibesar's dismissal, the Beavers' defense has put up back-to-back dominant performances. The Beavers allowed 230 yards and 14 points against Stanford — albeit against a true freshman quarterback in his first career start — and 266 yards and 10 points against Arizona State last weekend.
Oregon State's 10 points allowed against Arizona State are the fewest a Beavers' defense has allowed against a Pac-12 opponent since Oct. 20, 2012.
The Beavers are playing their best defense in a long time right now, and they have all the momentum heading into Autzen Stadium on Saturday with a Pac-12 Championship Game berth on the line.
Let's take a look at three players who could propel the Oregon State defense on Saturday.
1. #34 Avery Roberts - Inside Linebacker
When Avery Roberts is on the field, he's the clear captain of the Beavers' defense and is one of the best, if not the best, linebacker in the entire Pac-12.
But will he be on the field against the Ducks on Saturday? It's up in the air.
Roberts sprained his ankle against Arizona State early in the game and did not return. Head Coach Jonathan Smith said this week "we're hopeful to see him this week in practice. I can't guarantee you one way or the other right now. We'll have a better idea toward the end of the week. We're just not certain where he's at."
If Roberts isn't able to go, the Beavers will lose the Pac-12's leading tackler and the ninth-leading tackler in the country with a whopping 115 tackles. He's also logged nine tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, an interception, two pass breakups, and a forced fumble. He's the emotional leader and veteran presence that every defense needs.
Sprained ankles aren't typically injuries that players can bounce back from a week later, so it's likely that Roberts will be unavailable on Saturday. If that is the case, expect to see redshirt junior Kyrei Fisher filling in for him.
Fisher was outstanding against Arizona State, posting nine tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks and three quarterback hits. He was a menace in the backfield and forced Jayden Daniels to make some errant throws, one of which in the first quarter on a third-and-nine at the OSU 14 to force a field goal attempt, which was missed.
Roberts is an irreplaceable asset to the Beavers' defensive formula, but Fisher was a big part of the Beavers shutting down Arizona State's offense.
2. #3 Jaydon Grant - Defensive Back
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Jaydon Grant only began playing football during his senior year of high school, but he's quickly become the best defensive back on the Oregon State roster and the leader of the secondary.
Grant, who intercepted Tyler Shough when the two rivals went head-to-head last season, ranks third on the team with 56 tackles and also has two interceptions, 2.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and five pass breakups.
He's a ballhawk that is great with his hands and is a sticky defender in man coverage. He reads the quarterback's eyes well but doesn't stare too long so that he loses his assignments.
For the Ducks, utilizing their speed at the receiver position will be their best recipe against Grant. Washington used Terrell Bynum against Grant back in early October, and Bynum had a touchdown catch on a shallow crosser, and the defensive back couldn't keep his footing as Dylan Morris delivered the throw on time and on target.
The Beavers have a tall secondary with 6'0" Grant, 6'1" Ron Hardge III, 6'1" Alex Austin and 6'1" Kitan Oladapo manning the defensive backfield. With Oregon's tall receivers in Devon Williams (6'5'), Troy Franklin (6'2") and Dont'e Thornton (6'5"), the Beavers should match up well.
3. #2 Andrzej Hughes-Murray - Outside Linebacker
When the Beavers defeated the Ducks in Corvallis last season, no one had a more productive day than Andrzej Hughes-Murray, who recorded eight tackles (four solo), a sack and 3.5 tackle for loss. He's done damage against this Oregon offensive line before, and don't be surprised to see him pop off again.
Hughes-Murray ranks fourth on the team with 43 tackles, second with 6.5 tackles for loss, and first with 4.0 sacks. He has also recorded a team-high eight quarterback hits.
The Beavers will need his speed and power to pressure Anthony Brown from either side and force him to make quick decisions. His sack against Oregon last year came against Steven Jones from the left side, but he can affect the quarterback's timing and rhythm from either side.
Oregon State's pass rush hasn't been the same this year with Hamilcar Rashed Jr. heading to the NFL, but Hughes-Murray has provided a spark in that category and will be looking for a repeat performance on Saturday.
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