Like several others of you out there, this game has been circled on my calendar all year as one that could challenge the Ducks. Thursday night games are always tricky and so are trips to the desert. You can bet the Sun Devils will be hyped up.
With a 5-1 record and nationally ranked in the Coaches Poll, Arizona State is experiencing a surprisingly swift return to legitimacy under new coach Todd Graham after being one of the most penalized and underachieving teams in the country last year. They will be Oregon's toughest test of the year but in the end the Ducks should be able to go to their strengths and win the game comfortably.
Arizona State's strength on defense is along the line. They are second in the nation in sacks per game at 4.33, while Will Sutton, one of the best defensive tackles in the country, is tied for the individual lead nationally with eight. They blitz more than any other team Oregon has faced and rank eighth in the nation in total defense and ninth in scoring defense.
Oddly enough, Arizona State does not have an elite rush defense as they rank 39th in the country and sixth in the Pac-12 in rushing yards allowed at 128.5. ASU's rushing defense is even worse according to the advanced statistics index S+P, where they rank 84th. (Side note: if you aren't already reading ATQ member kalon's excellent advanced statistics posts, you should start doing so now. Latest one is HERE)
While Oregon should have its way on the ground, expect them to air it out early on. ASU's defensive backfield is thin but they are still likely to try and sell out to stop the run thus forcing Oregon to throw early in the game. Mariota has the ability to hit the open receiver and should have a very efficient game passing, provided the offensive line gives him time.
The Sun Devils' d-line will be the best and most physical Oregon has faced all year. But at this point in the season, a stout test is exactly what the offensive line needs. To date the Oregon o-line has under-achieved, and this game will give a lot of guys an opportunity to step up and solidify their role. They're loaded with talent; now is the time for some combination of guys to answer the bell.
As usual, Oregon can run into problems if they give up points on turnovers (ASU averages two turnover recoveries a game), but I think that is unlikely, due both to Mariota's maturation and our own stingy defense.
It will be interesting to see how the crowd affects the Ducks and whether playing on a Thursday after the bye causes Oregon to come out slow in the first half. Ultimately they should impose their will like they have all year, running the Sun Devils into the ground with their pace and conditioning. It might be exciting into the third quarter, but ultimately I expect the Ducks to win comfortably.