Oregon traveling to Arizona State is the one game that the Ducks shouldn't drop, but easily could. I don't think before the season anyone could fault Oregon for losing at USC on November 3rd (God forbid), but if there was a trap game on the schedule it would be at Arizona State
My fear of this game has only increased so far this season. Arizona State has looked its best since probably the 2007 season, Dennis Erickson's first as head coach. The game is on a Thursday night, which I feel like has led to the Ducks underperforming multiple times, and it will be at a packed Sun Devil Stadium. By the way, I'm not doing this to bring down Sparky, but the reason they sold out the game is because they put just south of 20,000 tickets on sale for $10. Oregon may have had to resort to groupon or livingsocial to sell out the first game, but it still is better than some other college situations. You gotta do what you gotta do, especially when it is a nationally televised game on ESPN on Thursday night when everyone will be watching.
I was talking with some of my friends earlier this week what the chances were of a Sun Devil win, and I would put it at 35% of so, with the Ducks winning at a chance of 65%. If the Ducks start slow or play average or have a second quarter like they did against Washington State, this could easily be a nail biter. If Oregon takes care of business and plays really well, it should be a two to three score win.
Arizona State Will Win If:
They get in the backfield consistently
The Sun Devils most notable statistic so far this year, other than reduced penalties and turnovers, is how much better they are at getting in the backfield. They sack the quarterback often, 4.33 times a game, and create a lot of negative plays.
As seen in all of Oregon's losses, getting in the backfield is the key to stopping the run. When the running lanes for both backs are covered the zone read doesn't even matter. When the running back can't have time to wait for a hole to open up then there are stops in the backfield. Penetration is the most important part of stopping Oregon's rushing attack.
Stop The Run
If I'm Arizona State, I'm selling out on the run. They rank 84th in S&P+ in rush defense and I would sell out on the run. Rely on the linemen to bottle up offensive linemen and let the linebackers free. Zone blitz as much as possible to the side of the field an outside zone read would go to and hope for a few lucky turnovers and solid secondary play when it matters.
Oregon's advanced stats make it so clear that they are a run-first teams that needs the threat of each to succeed. They are 5th in rushing and 12th in passing S&P+, but if you force them in to pass only situations, they are 64th. The Sun Devils need to force Oregon to be one-dimensional, which will also aid their pass rush.
Create Short Fields
This is really the biggest key for Arizona State other than stopping the run. If you can't stop the run you won't win except for a huge amount of luck. This is where that luck comes in to play. As I've said before, Arizona will probably zone blitz a lot to stop the run, and in a 3-4 it is easy to do. Mariota faces a 3-4 almost every day in practice so he should have some better experience and in the bye week hopefully fixed some of his interception issues, but this is still a viable danger to Oregon. One of Washington State's early scores was from an interception returned to inside Oregon's red zone.
Forcing three and outs is also key. If they can pin Oregon deep and then force a three and out and receive a punt near the 50, that is gold. The flip side of this is that Arizona has struggled to put together long drives. They are at least going to have to break character and not get in to the three and outs themselves against one of the nation's best defenses at forcing three and outs. Even if Arizona State can't score on a drive, they have to flip the field position to put Oregon on its heels.
Oregon Will Win If:
Limit Negative Plays
Arizona State averages 4.33 sacks per game and is one of the nation's leaders in plays for a loss. If Oregon loses this game it will surely end up in the Spike Factor on Every Day Should Be Saturday. This really also goes back to the fact that if Oregon gets in to second and long after an unsuccessful first down, they tend to have long third downs also. Arizona State is 34th in nation according to Football Outsider's S&P+ on passing downs, when they are 84h against the run. Being able to pick how you play defense will be crucial for the Sun Devils.
When there are fewer negative plays it is easier to get first downs, and the immediate benefits of getting first downs early is that Arizona State struggles on long drives. They like to be explosive with quick drives. At least getting first downs and forcing Arizona State to go 80-90 yards every drive will go a long ways.
Better Road Performance from Mariota
This is really filed under the "We haven't seen enough of him and with only one sample so far this could be irrelevant but with freshmen road games historically don't go well." In Seattle for the Washington State game Mariota went 21/32 for 169 yards, a touchdown, and two interceptions. His fumbling issues have apparently been fixed or seriously reduced because they haven't been nearly as evident with better ball protection.
The lingering issue is still interceptions. He needs to let some plays just go. He does a great job extending plays but is too willing to try and run around someone to get two yards. Just throw it away! Don't worry about it Mariota! He's always bounced back well from mistakes but they just can't happen against a dangerous team like Arizona State, at least not on our side of the 50.
Establish the Run
I know establishing the run comes from the "obviously" department, but this is really one of the biggest keys to the whole game. There are a few things that happen when you create a good rushing attack in a game. First, the pursuit of the defensive linemen and the blitzers slow because if they just pin their ear backs they will blow by the running back. If the run is getting stopped no matter what the defensive linemen do, then their biggest goal is to get to the quarterback. This is most evident for the offensive linemen, who would prefer to fire out and block rather than step back and form a pocket around the quarterback. When the defensive linemen don't know what's coming it limits what they can do on the pass rush.
Also, running effectively will make it a lot easier on Marcus Mariota. Chip Kelly has been quick to run play action passes early in games, perhaps as a counter to team's selling out to stop the run. The last thing on earth I really want is for Mariota to have to worry about the pass rush because the defense knows the run is taken care of and they can focus on getting to the quarterback. Mariota has worked really well outside the pocket and rolling out, but when plays take too long to develop he is inconsistent in his movement within the pocket, making it easier on the defense.