- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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While some might be fixated on how Oregon State's season ended -- another loss to Oregon and a blown fourth-quarter lead in the Alamo Bowl against Texas -- the big picture for 2012 was undeniably attractive.
The Beavers reversed course as a program. After consecutive losing seasons and a horrid 3-9 finish in 2011, they went 9-4 and finished the season ranked 20th.
Those looking ahead might be fretting what is at question heading into 2013: The up-the-middle defense, the departure of two first-team All-Pac-12 standouts in cornerback Jordan Poyer and wide receiver Markus Wheaton and an on-going quarterback cha-cha.
But there's strong grounds for optimism. There's a reason just about everyone figures the Beavers to be a Top-25 team again in the fall. One of the biggest is defensive end Scott Crichton leading a defense with several key pieces back.
Seven of the Beavers' 17 returning starters are on defense, including Crichton, who earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2012 after posting 44 tackles and leading the Beavers with 17.5 tackles for a loss and nine sacks. He also forced a fumble, recovered two more, blocked a kick and swatted down three passes.
Crichton had six sacks as a redshirt freshman for a terrible defense. If you project similar improvement from 2012 to 2013, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound junior could push into some rarified sack numbers.
And Crichton sees plenty of room for improvement. Just start with conditioning. Crichton, who's sitting out spring practices with a shoulder injury, said getting stronger and more fit this offseason will make him a better player. When he watches film from last fall, that's what stands out to him when his play falls short.
"A lot of it was strength and stamina, endurance. I got tired on some plays," he said. "I remember one of the plays in the Stanford game, I was just jogging. I got chewed out by my coach."
Defenses won't be able to obsess exclusively about Crichton on the edge. For one, the capable Dylan Wynn, also a two-year starter, is back on the opposite end. Further, the Beavers are athletic at outside linebacker with D.J. Alexander and Michael Doctor.
That foursome accounted for nearly half of the Beavers' total tackles for loss.
Of course, winning is more than personnel and X's and O's. The Beavers seemed to lose their way emotionally in 2010 and 2011. Just about everyone associated with the program recalls a renewed energy -- peppered with some anger -- in advance of the 2012 0ffseason.
"It was a mindset," Crichton said. "Everyone was sick and tired of losing. Everyone was doing extra in the offseason. But it should be like that every time. We shouldn't need a losing season to get going."
How much better was 2012 than 2011? It was nearly 10 points on defense. The Beavers surrendered 30.83 points per game in 2011, which ranked 89th in the nation. They yielded just 20.62 in 2012, which ranked 22nd.
If the Beavers continue to take steps forward, they will then run into the Oregon and Stanford tandem that has locked down the conference since 2009, and the Pac-12 North Division since it was created in 2011. The Ducks' recent run of excellence makes it hard to be satisfied in Corvallis, even with Top-25 finishes.
A season won't be truly fulfilling until the Beavers again take the Civil War, which they haven't done since 2007.
"I thought last year was a our year to get them but we lost to them. It was heartbreaking," Crichton said. "We get hungrier every year. Soon that scoreboard will change and it will go our way."
If Crichton collects double-digit sacks in 2013, and one or two of them come against Marcus Mariota, then maybe that scoreboard will change.