The Ducks offense, and specifically LaMichael James, has been on a tear lately. After a shaky start at LSU, the Ducks have surpassed 500 yards in 4 straight games, and have averaged 8.6 per play. However, the Ducks go up against a very good ASU defense, and without the best running back in school history. In the short stretches we've seen James out of the game, the offense has never looked the same. This is only the 4th game Chip Kelly has coached where LaMichael James has not been the starting running back (the other games, 2009 BSU and Purdue, and 2010 New Mexico). LaMichael James has been the focal point of the offense for just about every significant game that Chip Kelly has coached.
ASU gave the Oregon offense a lot of trouble last season, holding the Ducks to their second-worst output of the season. With his star player out, and facing a very good defense, Chip will need to be at his best not only on Saturday, but coaching his team this week as they prepare.
Unfortunately, I fear that getting the Oregon offense humming this week will be no easy task. The main thing that concerns me is that LaMichael James has been the only consistent player the Ducks have had this season. When the Ducks have to get something, there is no other player that I would trust. Kenjon, De'Anthony, David Paulson, Colt Lyerla, Rahsaan Vaughn, Josh Huff, and others have all looked very good at times, but have also essentially disappeared as key members of the offense for huge stretches.
In the passing game, it's a similar story. Darron Thomas looked improved against Nevada and Missouri State, but then dropped off considerably in the first two conference games. Thomas was completing at a high percentage in those games, though against Arizona and Cal, completed just over 50% of his passes. Luckily, it seemed that Thomas got out of this funk in the second half of the Cal game, but this type of performance is simply not an option against ASU.
The Sun Devils have been surprisingly good in the secondary this year, despite losing their star CB Omar Bolden in the offseason to an ACL tear. The Sun Devils are leading the Pac-12 and 6th in the country with 10 interceptions. Every opponent has completed over 60% of their passes against the Sun Devils, but that hasn't mattered. They don't give up many big plays, and they create turnovers.
I'm not all that optimistic that Oregon's receivers will be effective. Lavasier Tuinei has not done much lately, and De'Anthony Thomas may need to take more snaps at RB, though I really hope that is not necessary. Josh Huff looked to be improving in the last game, and the Ducks will need him to make more progress this week to have an effective passing game against the Sun Devils.
Running the ball, ASU boasts one of the tougher front sevens in the league. Yes, Vontaze Burfict is crazy and good. But he is surrounded by talented players. Last year ASU largely controlled the line of scrimmage against the Ducks, and that is not out of the question again. The Ducks offensive line has been improving, but they are still prone to mistakes, as we saw in the first half against Cal.
Kenjon Barner is very talented, and will no doubt get a lot of yards. But against Cal, if you take away his longest run, he had 9 carries for 20 yards.
If the Ducks don't get consistency out of the offense, they will leave their defense out to dry, as they did during large chunks of the 2008 and 2009 seasons. With the struggles the team has been having on that side of the ball, the Ducks cannot afford that.
I'm not afraid that ASU will shut down the Ducks. They are too undisciplined of a team for that to happen. The Ducks didn't move the ball consistently last year, but they used the big play to move the ball down the field in big chunks. Unfortunately, the Ducks also used 2 defensive scores and 7 turnovers to win that game, and that's not something that we can count on again.
The Ducks have relied on LaMichael for the last year and a half to carry the team, and on Saturday someone will need to take over that role, or it could turn into a long evening for Duck fans.