#2 Oregon Ducks at #24 Arizona State Sun Devils
6:00 PT :: Sun Devil Stadium
Arizona State is one of America's great schools. Approximately 25% of Americans attended ASU at some point in time, though many transferred or dropped out after wondering why they agreed to live in a blast furnace. However, many survived the adversity of the oppressive heat, and the list of graduates who have contributed much to American culture is long: extreme piercer Scott Seligman; award winning actress Courtney Cocks; Legally Blonde author Amanda Brown, and all-time steroid king Barry Bonds.
Many pundits, including this one, questioned the hiring of Todd Graham by the Sun Devils last offseason. ASU, a program with talent and potential, but severely lacking in dedication and discipline, hired a guy whose biggest knock was personal dedication to a program, seemingly switching jobs on an annual basis. However, it's clear that the Sun Devil brass knew something I didn't, because Arizona State has undergone a transformation this season that makes it potentially the greatest challenger to Oregon in the conference.
In the midst of a 5-1 start, virtually every stat is improved this year for ASU. They are averaging a touchdown more per game than last season (40.5-33.2) while allowing 12 points less (28.6-14.2). However, the most striking change is the discipline. ASU was the laughingstock of the Pac-12 under Dennis Erickson in regards to beating themselves with over a thousand penalty yards last season. However, they are the least penalized team in the conference this season with a mere 193 penalty yards through six games. The knock on ASU at this point has been the schedule-opponents are a combined 11-22-and the question is whether the Sun Devils can maintain their impressive level of performance against the Oregons and USCs of the conference.
Arizona State offense:
ASU has a new offensive scheme this season, and it's a wide-open, no huddle attack that should look very familiar to Duck fans. Taylor Kelly may have been a controversial choice at QB to start the season, but he has put any doubts to bed. The 6'2" sophomore has completed 68% of his passes for 1600 yards, 14 touchdowns, and only two interceptions. Among the most efficient QBs in the nation, the passing prowess alone would be enough to make Kelly extremely dangerous, but he's also extremely mobile, and the fact that he's averaging nine carries a game (and about four yards per carry) make him a very difficult QB to plan for. They also have a short yardage package that they will run with 6'6" backup QB Michael Eubank, where they seek to use him as a power runner, though they will also throw the ball about 1/3 of the time from that formation.
The Sun Devil rushing attack may not be scary, but its certainly effective. ASU averages 4.3 yards per carry spread around a plethora of backs. There is not one guy that is going to carry the ball 25 times a game, but four guys each have over 35 carries and 200 yards this season. Cameron Marshall is a power back at 215 lbs. He's the only one to average more than ten carries a game, and will get the rock in short yardage situation. DJ Foster and Marion Grice are speedier guys whom ASU will attempt to isolate in space. Both are big play threats. They also figure prominently in the passing game. Foster has the second most receptions on the team (20), while Grice has 13 catches. They have combined to be very productive at 500 yards and six touchdowns through the air.
6'3" TE Chris Coyle is the most prolific of the Sun Devil receivers, as his 28 receptions leads the team by far. They'll rotate four receivers (Rashad Ross, Kevin Ozier, Jamal Miles, and Richard Smith) who all get around 2-3 catches a game. None stand out from the other statistically, but all are effective.
The offensive line has been solid for a group breaking in three new starters, but they are still allowing 2.5 sacks per game against less than stellar competition. In the Colorado game, we saw a heavy screen game to combat some of the pass rush.
Arizona State defense:
While the offense has been quite good, it's the defense that has been terrorizing. There is the caveat that ASU has been playing bad teams (Cal, Colorado, and Utah) and a lot of backup quarterbacks, but they've largely been destroying those teams. They only allow 3.92 yards per play, and 3.2 yards per rush.
The defensive line is playing at an extremely high level, and it all starts with Will Sutton. Sutton has to be the early favorite for defensive player of the year in the conference. He already has 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss. He makes a living in the opponents' backfield, and given Oregon's troubles on the offensive line and their propensity for negative plays, Sutton ought to scare any Duck fan. But don't think Sutton is the only player on a stout defensive line. Junior Onyeali has four sacks of his own, and ASU as a team has 25 sacks and 60 TFL through six games.
Its also a very complete defense. Brandon Magee is a known quantity at linebacker, but Carl Bradford has 4.5 sacks opposite him. ASU has nine interceptions as a group, but four of them are by the linebackers. The secondary is a largely unknown quantity, but that's largely because they haven't had a quarterback that could adequately test them. Marcus Mariota will certainly do that, the question is how much pressure will be on him while he does.
Arizona doesn't force many fumbles, and certainly not as many in years past (seven FF and three recovered, as opposed to 28FF and 17 recoveries last season), but a lot of that has to do with solid tackling rather than trying to strip the ball. And, as stated before, they don't beat themselves with penalties.
This is a really good defense that gets a ton of pressure. It will be a challenge for the inconsistent Oregon offensive line, and one that will tell us a lot about that unit headed into the second half of the season.
Arizona State special teams:
The Sun Devils have been inconsistent in the field goal game this season, with Alex Garoutte making only 6/10 on the season, and there is talk of him being demoted in favor of Jon Mora. Punter Josh Hubner has been fantastic, averaging 45 yards a punt.
ASU has been electric at returning kickoffs, averaging 26.5 yards per return with a touchdown, while they give up only 20 yards per return. The reverse has been true on punts, where the Sun Devils get only seven yards per return, and give up 14.
Key Matchup: Oregon offensive line vs. Arizona State defensive line
Oregon's offensive line has been shaky this season, with bad snaps, blown assignments, and a lot of plays blown up at the mesh. Now it the time to rectify that against an ASU front that has made quick work of pretty much everybody this season.