The Arizona State Sun Devils are coming off an incredibly disappointing season in 2008. Picked to finish second behind USC in the Pac-10 preseason media poll heading into last season, ASU finished the year a mediocre 5-7 and tied for sixth in the conference standings.
But this year, expectations are more realistic. The Sun Devils were picked to finish fifth in the Pac-10 in this year's preseason media poll. And it would seem much of that success will depend on the play of their defense, which figures to be their biggest strength and potentially one of the stingiest in the Pac-10. With six returning starters, including outside linebacker Mike Nixon and defensive end Dexter Davis, both seniors, head coach Dennis Erickson will rely heavily on his defense to overcome inexperience issues on the offensive side of the ball.
But in the Pac-10, a strong defense will only take you so far. You still have to have a functional offense that's capable of eating the clock and controlling the tempo. And with standout quarterback Rudy Carpenter gone and concerns about his replacement, Danny Sullivan, as well as continued anxiety about the offensive line, the Sun Devils' success will hinge more on what its offense does, or doesn't, do.
Oregon Offense vs. Arizona State Defense:
If Sun Devils fans have anything to be hopeful about this season, it's ASU's defense. The Sun Devils have six returning starters, including the Pac-10's leading returners in sacks and tackles for loss (Davis), as well as interceptions (Nixon, who tied with Oregon's Walter Thurmond III last season with five). And those leaders return to a defense that wasn't half bad in 2008. ASU finished fourth in the conference in scoring defense, giving up 22.7 points per game, and fifth in total defense while allowing 335 yards per game. And they did it with very little help from their offense, which finished second to last in the conference in time of possession in 2008, second only to Oregon (who finished last in the nation).
Davis is the only returning player in the country who recorded double-digit sacks the past two seasons and will be the anchor on what should be a strong and quick defensive line, which, given Oregon's offensive line concerns, could give the Ducks fits. Sophomore defensive tackle Lawrence Guy, a Freshman All-American last season, is a handful and likely a future NFL first-round pick. And highly regarded true freshman defensive tackle Corey Adams could also contribute right away.
If the Sun Devils can control the line of scrimmage, the rest of the defense will shine. Nixon, who finished 2008 sixth in the conference with 7.5 tackles per game, is the leader of this group. Then there's highly touted true freshman linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who has played so well in fall camp, he may end up working his way into a starting role. The Devils also return starting cornerbacks Omar Bolden, a three-year starter, and Terell Carr.
The bottom line: ASU's defense should be very good, and actually matches up well against the Ducks, especially if Oregon's offensive line concerns become reality. But, oddly, the success of ASU's defense will hinge on how much time it spends on the field, and that falls more in the hands of its offense.
Arizona State Offense vs. Oregon Defense:
On the other side of the ball, the Sun Devils will need to fill the void left by Rudy Carpenter, and it's bigger than you might think. Despite a very disappointing senior season, Carpenter still finished fourth in the Pac-10 last year in passing yards (2,493) and passing efficiency (130.3), and he did all that despite being sacked 34 times, the third most of any quarterback in the Pac-10.
His assumed heir apparent, fifth-year senior Sullivan, played well enough during the spring to earn the job. But with questions still surrounding ASU's offensive line, as well as Sullivan's lack of mobility, another 34 sacks aren't out of the question. And that's bad news against the Ducks, who finished second in the conference last year in sacks with 38. But with four returning starters on the offensive line, including 6'3", 305-pound tackle Shawn Lauvao, the unit should improve. The question is: How much?
If Arizona State's passing game falters, there aren't a whole lot of options left. The Sun Devils will virtually have no running game after their only decent back, Keegan Herring, graduated.
The only real bright spot in ASU's offense is junior kicker Thomas Weber, the 2007 Lou Groza Award winner. Weber has the ability to hit from nearly anywhere inside 60 yards, and could be a big factor in the Sun Devils' success if they wind up in a lot of close games.
Overall, I think Oregon's defensive front will dominate the line of scrimmage and ultimately shut ASU's offense down. But with nine games to warm up for the Ducks, the story on offense could change, especially with a great coach like Dennis Erickson.
Oregon will have its hands full on offense trying to move the ball against what could end up being one of the Pac-10's toughest defensive units. But with the Sun Devils traveling to Autzen with a brand new quarterback under center who's really only shown flashes of potential, it's not likely the Ducks won't be able to put up enough points to pull out a win. But I think it could end up being too close for comfort.
Oregon 31, Arizona State 21