By Juan Roque for DieHardDevil.com
This is one of those opportunities that doesn’t come around very often. The stars are aligned as two of the top teams in the Pac-12 conference meet for battle and a national ESPN College Game Day audience. We will witness plenty of speed, scoring and some of the coolest uniforms in college football. A large number of fans and recruits will be watching and taking note. On Saturday, the Arizona State Sun Devils will have their most difficult contest of the 2011 season. ASU, ranked eighteenth in Associated Press football poll, will travel to one of the most hostile, places to play football…Autzen Stadium, home of the defending conference champion Oregon Ducks. The Ducks, 4-1 and ranked number nine in the poll, will provide this season’s most formidable challenge for the upstart Sun Devils. The 2011 season has brought good fortune to ASU in breaking streaks against USC and Oregon State in convincing fashion, and Oregon is another team that has recently had the Sun Devils’ number. The Ducks go into Saturday’s game with a six game winning streak against ASU that dates back to the 2005 season. Not a lot has gone right for ASU against their conference foes from the Pacific Northwest during this time. The Ducks have beaten the Sun Devils by an average score of 42-20 during this six year rut. The closest game was last September when Oregon escaped Tempe with a 42-31 win after an ASU turnover meltdown in the second half helped the Ducks overcome a halftime deficit. To put this streak in perspective, the last time the Sun Devils beat the Ducks was a 28-13 battle in Eugene on October 2, 2004. The seven year itch must be unbearable for ASU as they trek north on a mission to put an end to yet another opponent streak.
There is no question that the power has shifted in the Pac-12 conference after a one school reign that lasted a decade. With the fall of the once mighty USC Trojans to NCAA probation and a coaching change, Oregon has emerged as the team to beat. In response to their new status as the elite team of the conference, the Ducks have risen to the challenge having lost only three conference games since 2007 and have a 13 game winning streak at Autzen Stadium. Head Coach Chip Kelly has taken the program to a new level since former coach Mike Belotti stepped down following the 2008 season to become the Athletic Director. The Ducks enjoyed considerable success last season by going undefeated in the regular season and earning a berth in the National Title game in Glendale against Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers. The Ducks came up short 22-19 despite giving the Tigers all they can handle. This season, the Ducks began with a disappointing loss against another group of Tigers from LSU in Arlington, Texas 40-27. Since then,the Ducks have been rolling over everyone in their path winning four games in a row with an average score of 56-18. With ESPN College Game Day coming to Eugene and the game being televised to national audience, the Ducks will be looking to make a statement that they are still among the nation’s best despite their game one loss.
Meet the Ducks on offense
Oregon has the most explosive offense in the Pac-12 conference. The Ducks run a hybrid version of the Spread but rather than think “pass first” they actually prefer to establish the ground game and then open the field up for their quarterback and receivers. Unfortunately for the Ducks, they will be without the best running back in the country; LeMichael James. James suffered a dislocated elbow during the fourth quarter of the Cal game last week, and while all indications are he will be okay and back on the field soon he will not play this Saturday. It’s bad news for Oregon because James, a Heisman Trophy front runner, has been unstoppable lately averaging 170.9 yards per game and 9.0 yards per carry.
With the absence of James, the Ducks will need to rely on true freshman DeAnthony Thomas and junior Kenjon Barner to carry the work load on the ground. DeAnthony, nicknamed “Black Mamba” by Snoop Dogg during his days playing pee wee football, has shown flashes of dominance in his short time in Eugene and is a future star in the Pac-12. Through five games he is the second leading rusher on the team and averages 7.6 yards per carry. Anthony is also the Ducks’ top receiver with 17 catches for 286 yards and four touchdowns. Barner is a veteran who is fast and athletic and averages 6.2 yards per carry.
Quarterback Darron Thomas is one of the Pac-12’s best signal callers and is the driving force behind the offense. Thomas took over the starting job last season when Jeremiah Masoli left the program due to legal problems during the off season. Thomas stepped in and led the Ducks to the National Title game and earned second team all conference honors. In 2011, Thomas has not skipped a beat completing 79 of 133 passes for 1040 yards, 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He is also very effective on the ground running 18 times for 130 yards and two touchdowns.
Senior Lavasier Tuinei is the Ducks’ best receiver after DeAnthony. On the season Tuinei has 17 catches for 190 yards and four touchdowns. He was shut down last week against Cal and will be looking to redeem himself and get back to being productive this week against ASU. Rashaan Vaughn can make plays but has not put up numbers like his fellow teammates but with the absence of James and Anthony possibly playing running back he will be much more involved this week.
On the offensive line the Ducks are big and athletic. At the guard positions they boast two all-conference players in left guard Carson York and right guard Mark Asper. Asper is a monster inside and uses his 6’7” 325 body to run over opposing tackles, and athletic enough to get to the second level and block linebackers. Left tackle Darrion Weems and right tackle Nick Cody have combined for 56 starts. This is a veteran unit that plays very well together.
How ASU matches up
The Ducks’ “run first” approach will not change despite the injury to James. Expect Oregon to use misdirection, option reads and perimeter runs to move the chains and drive the ball down the field. This is a huge test for the entire ASU defense. The defensive line has to be stout and not allow themselves to get pushed off the ball or be moved laterally down the line. They will need to penetrate the line of scrimmage and get into the Duck backfield in order to disrupt Darron Thomas’ reads and force the running backs to move laterally rather than vertically. This will allow ASU to maximize its speed at linebacker and close in on the Oregon backs and bring them down behind the line of scrimmage or for short gains. This is critical for the defense. If Oregon gets their ground game hitting on all cylinders it will be a long night in Eugene. Auburn and LSU shut down Oregon’s ground game and won. This will be the mission of the ASU front seven Saturday, and while it may be cliché, it’s an important key to pulling off the upset. In the secondary, the Sun Devils need to keep doing what they have been doing lately. They need to read their keys and not allow the play action or misdirection passing plays to fool them. The Ducks will test their discipline early, so it’s very important that they trust their coaching and preparation and not do anything that will give the Ducks the edge. They need to keep the Oregon receivers in front of them and not allow themselves to get lulled into a mistake. This is how Oregon makes its living; they capitalize on mistakes made by the secondary that lead to big plays.
Key Matchup: ASU Linebackers vs. Oregon Backs
Meet the Ducks on defense
Oregon’s offense is the strength of the team without question. The defense, while efficient, has been far from dominant through the first five games. The Ducks are allowing opponents to score an average of 22.6 points per game, run for an average of 173 yards and pass for 230 yards. The bend but don’t break approach has been effective to date due to the offense being nearly unstoppable. The unit can make plays though and they have players at key positions that can disrupt the opposition. They are an opportunistic bunch and run their schemes well. In 2011 the unit has 31 tackles for loss for 136 yards in losses, has 11 sacks and has forced five fumbles. While not a stifling dominant defense, they get the job done.
The best player the Ducks have on defense is Middle linebacker DeWitt Stuckey. While not a physically imposing player at 5’11” 221 pounds the senior plays with a ton of heart and passion. His nose for the football and intensity are reminiscent of the late Sam Mills who played in the NFL for 12 seasons with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers despite being 5’9”. Stuckey is second on the team in tackles with 28 along with a sack and quarterback hit. Michael Clay is also a talented defender on the weak side who can cover laterally very quickly and is a physical tackler. Clay has 21 tackles in 2011 along with a sack, a pass break up and a defended pass.
On the defensive line, the premier player is defensive end Dion Jordan. Jordan, a Chandler native, is tall and fast. The 6’7” 240 pound junior leads the defensive line in tackles with 19. He is adept at getting into the opposing backfield with six tackles for loss. Defensive tackle Taylor Hart is does a good job holding down the interior. The 6’6” Hart has broken up two passes and defended two others to go along with his 14 tackles.
In the secondary, free safety John Boyett is a the star. Boyett leads the team in tackles with 29, has broken up four passes and defended four others. He is quick to react in run support and is constantly around the football. Rover Eddie Pleasant plays a hybrid safety linebacker position and is a play maker. Pleasant is third on the team in tackles with 27 and has broken up three passes. Terrance Mitchell is their best cover corner and has defended well during the first part of the season.
How ASU matches up
This is a game where Cameron Marshall needs to emerge and have a big night after a disappointing game last week. The Ducks defense is not what it was in years past and teams have been able to move the ball on them. In order to win this game, ASU needs to establish long drives that end in points and it begins with the running game. Time of possession is the main key to victory. By eating up the clock with long drives, the Sun Devils will keep their defense rested and able to keep up with Oregon’s fast pace. The offensive line will need to step it up big time and have their best game of the year run blocking. They need to get off the ball, engage and move the Ducks off the line of scrimmage to open holes for Marshall. At some point, this unit has to become fed up with the criticisms and do something about it. Brock Osweiler must be very alert and expect the Ducks to do something he hasn’t seen to manufacture pressure and react accordingly. He needs to be patient and wait for his opportunities and strike when they present themselves. While decent, the Ducks’ secondary should be no match for ASU’s deep receiving corps. If the running game is established it should be easy pickings for Osweiler as the Ducks will be outmatched in the perimeters.
Key Matchup: ASU run game vs. Oregon Front Seven
Oregon is a good football team without question. Oregon has speed and talent. No doubt about it. Oregon will be tough to beat at Autzen. Absolutely. But keep in mind they are not the dominant juggernaut that has existed in recent seasons. Despite being on a four game roll, the Ducks haven’t beaten anyone relevant. After their loss to LSU, the Ducks blew out Nevada, Missouri State, Arizona and California who have a combined record of 6-15. At some point, the Ducks will stutter step in their dominance of the conference just like their predecessors, and there is no reason that it can’t happen Saturday. The Ducks are not unbeatable as Auburn and LSU have shown. In those two losses, the Ducks were shut down on the ground and were beaten up physically. If ASU goes into Autzen with a sense of purpose, they play error free, limit turnovers and keep the ball away from the Ducks offense, they will break another streak. However, if they get off to a slow start or turn the ball over like they did last season, they’ll make this challenge much more difficult and most likey suffer their second loss of the season. This is one of those rare games where ASU has a unique opportunity to show the nation who they are and where this program is headed. Let’s see if the Sun Devils are ready to step up to the challenge with ESPN College Game Day broadcasting to the entire nation.
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