Oregon State on the verge of bowl eligibility as defense stops Washington State cold in a 24-10 win

Oregon State students stormed the field to celebrate Saturday night’s 24-10 win over Washington State, leaving a few to wonder just where the bar is set for field-rushing victories.

Perhaps it was the significance of OSU’s first win over the Cougars since 2013. Still, a few Beavers turned as they made their way to the locker room and thought, huh?

More likely it’s a process for the students and the fan base. It’s been a while since Oregon State’s program had a team capable of imposing its will on the opponent and coming out victorious.

That’s precisely what happened Saturday night at Reser Stadium. The Beavers (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) had a plan to be physical, run the ball, frustrate WSU quarterback Cameron Ward and grind out a low-scoring win.

For the first time in coach Jonathan Smith’s five-year tenure, the Beavers can lean hard on their defense rather than expect miracles from the offense.

Washington State had 368 yards, which included many empty yards as the Cougars tried to rally from a two-touchdown deficit for most of the second half. Ward, sacked an OSU season-high six times, was 25 of 54 for 345 yards.

“That was the feeling, the way our defense was playing,” Smith said. “We were a little more conservative. It’s a credit to those guys. They’ve been working, growing and developing.”

Oregon State scored only 24 points and produced 344 offensive yards, but because of the defense, it felt like the Beavers had control throughout the game. There was an impression that this was Oregon State’s most complete game of the season. Special teams contributed a huge kickoff return and a big night from punter Luke Loecher. The defense did a number on the Cougars. The offense, while not flashy, delivered when needed. Quarterback Ben Gulbranson masterfully managed the game, as he mixed in enough passing yards to complement a running game that produced a season-high 221 yards.

“I am proud of us offensively, not that we lit the scoreboard up. But we the way we stuck to a plan … knowing that our defense could play,” Smith said. “It was pretty solid for us.”

Oregon State is slowly building a case that its defense is among the Pac-12′s elite, if not the conference’s best. This is the sixth time in seven games the Beavers have held an opponent under 400 yards, remarkable in a league known for offense. Washington State’s defense has been hyped for weeks as potentially the Pac-12′s bell cow. Yet Saturday night, the Beavers were every bit as formidable as the Cougars, perhaps better. If that served as motivation, Oregon State didn’t let on.

“We try to tune out a lot of that outside noise. We know what type of defense we are,” said outside linebacker John McCartan, one of eight Beavers to have a hand in the six sacks. “We just try to worry about ourselves and focus on what we can do.”

Oregon State tipped its offensive game plan on the opening drive. After Silas Bolden’s 60-yard return on the opening kickoff, the Beavers rode the running game and Jack Colletto into the end zone for a 7-0 lead.

By game’s end, the Beavers ran the ball on 47 of their 71 offensive plays. Freshman back Damien Martinez produced a career-high 111 yards. Colletto had a season-high six carries, and scored two touchdowns.

“I honestly thought the offense, we executed,” Colletto said. “They’re a good defense, but for the most part, we were able to move the ball and do good things.”

Gulbranson, in his second career start, was 12 of 24 for 141 yards and a touchdown. While those numbers don’t fly off the page, they fit in the context of what Oregon State wanted its offense to accomplish. Move the sticks, keep drives going and when needed, make a big play. That came about midway through the third quarter when Gulbranson, under duress from a WSU pass rusher, delivered a 17-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Gould and a 17-3 OSU lead.

Whether Gulbranson is the starter moving forward depends on Chance Nolan’s health. Nolan has been sidelined since the first quarter of the Utah game on Oct. 1 (concussion protocol). Until Nolan is cleared, there’s no decision to make. When Nolan is healthy, Smith feels like he has a good problem to solve.

“I do think we have two guys we can win games with,” Smith said.

Oregon State can become bowl eligible with a win over Colorado next Saturday. It would mark only the fourth time in program history that the Beavers have been bowl eligible by the end of October.

There’s plenty at stake beyond a bowl game. The Beavers are looking to surpass last season’s seven-win total, their best since 2013. OSU remains in the hunt for one of the Pac-12′s top bowl games. There’s even a flickering hope of a conference title game appearance.

Heady stuff that takes some getting used to. But possible because of a defense that has arrived.

Nick Daschel reported from Corvallis

ndaschel@oregonian.com | @nickdaschel

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