Well, called that one.
It had to be experienced for most fans to truly understand -- and trust me, we didn’t see the whole package -- but last Saturday, in Husky Stadium, we saw first-hand what this Oregon team could have been with a fully healthy Vernon Adams.
And, damn...what a difference.
Oregon didn’t light up the scoreboard (a lot of credit has to go to the Huskies defense, by the way, which is top-20 nationally for a reason), but with Adams’ ability to scramble, and the threat of the deep ball, the entire Oregon team seemed different. There was a swagger that had been missing this season, and had come to a crashing crescendo the previous week.
But after the 26-20 victory, their 12th straight against the Huskies, Oregon’s season feels as if there is a touch of life left; and, with Cal’s loss last Thursday, they door for the Pac-12 North championship has a crack of light underneath. None of it is possible, however, with another loss. Any margin for error was lost three Saturday’s ago in Autzen.
The same can be said for the Arizona State Sun Devils, perhaps just a big of a disappointment this season as Oregon. A consensus top-20 team entering the season, the Sun Devils stumbled out of the gate, losing a neutral site opener against Texas A&M, and have never regained their footing. A beat down at the hands of USC a few weeks back looked to have been the topper; a bounce back win over UCLA, however -- much like Oregon’s over Washington -- has kept hope of postseason success alive in Tempe.
Three things to watch Thursday night…
1. Early momentum. The last time Oregon came to Tempe -- also a Thursday night affair -- the game essentially ended before it even began. After a quick Oregon turnover led to a 7-0 hole, the Ducks rattled off 43 unanswered points, dismantling the Sun Devils, and wiping out any volatility the crowd may have presented.
That team, of course, was quarterbacked by a freshman named Marcus Mariota. This time, they won't have that luxury, making it even more imperative to start off quickly.
On the road, just like last week, Oregon could do themselves a big favor by jumping out early. Arizona State is an attacking, blitz-until-we-run-out-of-guys defense, that can force you to compile mistakes at an alarming rate. Falling behind, though, is the death-knell for that type of defense. If Oregon can force ASU to think twice on their blitzing (ahem, again, Adams’ scrambling), then the Ducks will do the one thing all road teams want to do: force the home team to play out of their element.
2. Can Oregon’s receiver continue to block? A reinstated Darren Carrington deserves just as much credit for Oregon’s passing game revival, as he gave Adams yet another deep threat to play with. But, as always with Oregon, it's the receivers ability to block downfield that is the real test. With ASU’s blitzing, attacking front, Royce Freeman could have lots of room once he breaks into the second level. If the receivers are able to lock up the Sun Devil secondary, which has been a weak spot for them this season, then many of those Freeman runs could start to go longer and longer.
The domino effect? No more blitzing; Adams has ample time to pick apart the secondary; and Oregon walks out with a huge road win.
3. Can DeForest Buckner keep it up? The Ducks defensive line was another level of nasty against the Huskies, and no one was more disruptive than Buckner. It’s no surprise -- he’s been nearly unstoppable all season -- but in that game we finally saw his disruption pay off in the form of sacks. Mike Bercovici, Arizona State’s fifth-year senior quarterback, won’t be as easy to get to, and won’t be rattled, but constant pressure will be the key to slowing a potentially blistering Sun Devils offense.
Buckner’s friends -- especially sophomore Henry Mondeaux -- are starting to feed off the monster; and, as Oregon’s secondary continues to round into shape, it appears that the Ducks have a defense that is, somewhat, rounding into form.
Thursday night Pac-12 games are an absolute crap shoot; last week, a downtrodden UCLA team made easy work of #20 Cal, for example. Predicting these are almost laughable. But the pieces seem to be falling into place for Oregon, offensively and defensively.
A big interception by Charles Nelson seals the deal late, and Oregon remains (slightly) alive in the Pac-12 North.