We just beat Portland State, we're number one!
The consensus coming into the season was that Arizona State, a horrible team last season, would be equally horrible again this year. After blasting two FCS teams, and losing a squeaker at what we believe to be a good Wisconsin team, the narrative has changed a bit. Most people don't think that the Ducks are going to roll over ASU, and there is a significant number of people who believe that this is a losable game. It begs the question, what's different about the Sun Devils? Are they not who we thought they'd be?
The first thing that's important to note is that its hard to take anything meaningful out of the first three games. The disclaimer on Oregon's PlayStation stats the first three games has been the schedule-New Mexico and Portland State are horrible teams, Tennessee middle of the pack. Same can be said for Arizona State-beating that same Portland State team (54-9), Northern Arizona, and losing by one at Wisconsin. The consensus, or course, is that Wisconsin is good. But do we know that? They had their struggles with both UNLV and San Jose State. I think that Wisconsin is pretty good, and those close score can be linked to the fact that their offense isn't conducive to blowing even bad teams out, but given the Badgers schedule, its tough to make those conclusions just yet. Remember last year, where ASU outplayed and should have beaten Georgia in Athens, and both teams went on to be completely underwhelming. That said, the makeover could be very real as well.
ASU's defense last year was quite good, the 13th best defense in the country. But they lost an awful lot of starters (6), and there is some early evidence to suggest some slippage. They are currently 5th in the conference in total defense, a not so great stat considering those two FCS teams they played. The rushing defense has looked stout, giving up just over a hundred yards a game, and even limiting Wisconsin's power rushing attack to 4.6 ypc. They've had considerably less luck against the pass, languishing in the bottom half of the conference despite the schedule. They do have four picks, but three of those came against Portland State, who actually moved the ball through the air pretty decently on the Sun Devils. This still looks to be a good defense, but they haven't played at anywhere near the level they did last year. They only give up a little over two yards per carry, but the only legit team they've played put up 4.6 ypc (ASU fattened up on PSU's rushing offense, we saw how bad that was). Oregon's rushing offense is unlike anything they've seen this season, and they'll have to rely on speed moreso than containing power to stop it. Oregon can run the ball on this defense, especially after the Ducks loosen it up a bit by picking on their fairly porous secondary. I won't even get into pace and stamina this year, as Oregon's pace will be the polar opposite of Wisconsin.
The big change, of course, has been Arizona State's offense. Its been quite competent early this season. Although their backs They still don't run the ball worth a darn (only Arizona has fewer rushing attempts in the conference). Also, it seems like when they do run, they look to hit the corners and outrun guys. That worked against a Wisconsin defense that looked awfully slow, but its hard to believe that running east-west is going to be effective against Oregon's defense.
The most obvious difference is at QB. While the Sun Devils were a revolving door at QB last season, they have stability in Steven Threet, the Michigan transfer who leads the conference in total offense. ASU is running a version of the ‘air raid' spread this season, but instead of deep route, almost everything is short underneath stuff, utilizing receivers with great hands rather than blazing speed (see Aaron Pflugrad and Kerry Taylor). They've also utilized a lot of screens this season. I could see them breaking a big play or two on a screen where we have a big blitz coming or something like that. But, overall, this isn't a big play offense. It's a much, much improved offense, but it's a possession offense that has taken advantage of the weak (PSU, NAU) and the slow (Wisconsin, who allowed 17 to SJSU and 20 to UNLV). I don't see how the dink and dunk is going to produce big numbers against a defense as fast and physical as Oregon. You may string together a few first downs, but once one of those sweeps or quick outs get stopped for negative yardage, you're in a world of hurt. (For a visual primer of ASU's new offense, JediASU has a great YouTube feed with all of ASU's touchdown drives on it, here's a sample).
That's maybe their best drive of the season, and nothing on that film scares me at all.
An interesting thing of note is the pace at which ASU plays. Their spread is nowhere near as fast as Oregon's, but there's a good 17 seconds left on the play clock when they snap the ball. They want to hurry up and play fast. Fortunately, Oregon have a defense that's used to playing against someone who does that better.
Two more factors in this game. The crowd shouldn't be much of one, as ASU is excited at the prospect of topping 60,000 for this game (in a stadium that holds well over 70k), and you know that many of those will be Oregon fans. But the weather will be, as even with the late start, its expected to be nearly a hundred degrees at kickoff, and still into the 90s when the game ends. At least with the night game, the sun won't be bearing down on Oregon, but it will be interesting to see if the Ducks can keep up their pace the whole game under those conditions.
Arizona State looks to be much improved. They'll beat WSU and UCLA, probably Washington and should have great shots in some other games. But this isn't a team that's particularly powerful, fast, or tricky. They are good, but not great in any facet of the game. Oregon may not run them out of the building, but as long as Oregon doesn't turn the ball over, its not a game that should be particularly close, either.