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Provo • At first glance, the undefeated Oregon State Beavers don't look like the most formidable opponent on BYU's home football schedule this year. They roll into Saturday's showdown ranking in the 100s nationally in a couple key statistical categories.
And the Beavers will start an inexperienced quarterback, junior Cody Vaz, after dynamic sophomore Sean Mannion suffered a knee injury while making a handoff in last week's 19-6 win over Washington State.
But there's a No. 10 next to Oregon State (4-0) in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings, and that alone has the Cougars' full attention. It is OSU's highest ranking since Aug. 26, 2001, and the Beavers will be the first top-10 team to play in Provo since No. 8 TCU in 2009.
"This team we're playing is really, really good," BYU quarterback Riley Nelson said. "It is a great opportunity for us to play in the national spotlight against a top-ranked team in our homecoming [game], so we are just excited to compete and ready to play."
The Cougars (4-2) handled the Beavers 38-28 last year in Corvallis, but a couple of days of film study has shown the Cougars that Oregon State has improved immensely on both sides of the ball.
OSU's defense has almost been as good as BYU's, against arguably better competition. The Beavers are No. 4 in the country in rushing defense, allowing just 67.2 yards per game on the ground, and most impressively are No. 1 in third-down defense. Opponents are converting on third down just 20.4 percent of the time.
"Our defense has been relatively consistent this year," OSU coach Mike Riley said. "We had a rough go at Arizona [in a 38-35 win]. … We are outstanding on third down, as a matter of fact. I like the look of it."
Led by sophomore Scott Crichton, who had three sacks against WSU, the defensive line is the unit's strength. But the secondary is full of playmakers, including cornerback Jordan Poyer. The defensive back who had a pick-six against Nelson last year had three interceptions last week against the red Cougars.
"They knew going into Washington State we had to do better, because we were going to see the ball in the air all the time, and so I thought we had a good mixture of rush and coverage," Riley said. "We gave up a couple of plays, but besides that we did a really nice job."
BYU is ranked No. 1 in the country in rush defense and the Beavers are 103rd in rushing offense, but BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said "they run it effectively when they choose to."
Still, the test for BYU's defense will probably come through the air. OSU has probably the best receiving corps the Cougars will face, and that's saying something since WSU and Utah had some excellent pass-catchers.
Receivers Markus Wheaton, Brandin Cooks and Kevin Cummings are fast, quick, and really good after the catch, Mendenhall said.
"So a lot of quick throws where they are good after the catch, and then a lot of deep throws where they are fast. So yeah, I mean 340 [passing] yards a game is a lot," Mendenhall said.
If anyone on BYU's roster knows Oregon State's personnel, it is backup linebacker Uani 'Unga, who played for the Beavers in 2009 and 2010 before transferring to BYU so his pregnant wife could be closer to her family in Orem.
"I was surprised that they struggled last year, and to see them come back, I was kind of expecting it," Unga said.
Certainly, BYU has not played well against ranked teams, having dropped four straight games to opponents in the AP Top 25. Coincidentally, BYU's last win over a ranked team came in the 2009 Las Vegas Bowl, a 44-20 victory.
Sixteenth-ranked Oregon State.
Oregon State in national rankings
Category Rank Actual
Total offense 32 458 yards per game
Rushing offense 103 118.5 yards per game
Passing offense 8 339.5 yards per game
Rushing defense 4 67.2 yards per game
Total defense 39 353.2 yards per game
Third-down defense 1 20.41 percent
No. 10 Oregon State at BYU
P Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV • Ch. 4