By Juan Roque for DieHardDevil.com
Only a week removed from breaking an eleven year hex against rival USC, the Arizona State Sun Devils face a team that has a three game win streak against them: Oregon State. Coming off a huge win, ASU again finds itself ranked in the AP Poll at #25, sits atop the Pac-12 South and controls its own destiny in its hunt for the inaugural division title and PAC12 Championship Game. After a disappointing loss in week three against an inspired Illinois team, the Sun Devils emerged from the TILLMAN TUNNEL last week, played with a sense of purpose and displayed a kind of killer instinct that had yet to be seen in 2011 by putting away the Trojans 43-22. Now that the Beavers are coming into town, this is a big game for the Sun Devils for many reasons. It’s at home, and it’s against a team that has beaten them three years in a row. The Beavers are 0-3 and it’s a game that everyone expects the DEVILS to win easily. With the oddsmakers favoring ASU by over two touchdowns, one would assume this would be a walk in the park, but that’s far from the case. Oregon State is a team that has veterans at key positions who are used to winning, and for ASU to be victorious and avoid an upset, they will need to be cognizant of this fact. The Beavers are hungry for a win and will be looking to upset the Sun Devils at home very much like they upset USC several years back. Expect Dennis Erickson to have his team ready to play a tough and physical game Saturday as the Beavers will not just roll over. This is an opportunity for ASU to make a statement that they are not going to be an up and down team. It’s a chance for them to establish consistency against an opponent coming in with a sense of urgency.
Oregon State, after being a doormat program for 35 years, emerged as a formidable team in the first decade of the new millennium. Between 1999 and 2009 the Beavers participated in nine bowl games in which their most memorable was a 41-9 drubbing of Notre Dame in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl. That team, coached by current ASU coach Dennis Erickson, featured two future NFL stars: Chad Johnson (now Ochocinco) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Oregon State was recently a contender for the Pac-10 title having taken Oregon to the end of the fourth quarter in the 2009 “War of the Roses.” This version of the annual “Civil War” between the two schools guaranteed the championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl to the winner. Although the Beavers fought to the end it was the Ducks who won a close game 37-33 and made the trip to Pasadena. The disappointed Beavers were relegated to the Las Vegas Bowl where they lost to BYU 44-20.
Since then, Oregon State has not been able to get much traction on the football field. The Beavers, coming off a disappointing season in 2010 and 0-3 so far in 2011, come into Sun Devil Stadium in desperation mode. They went 5-7 a year ago after many thought they would be a top tier conference team, and in 2011 their start is nothing less than disappointing. They lost their opener against FCS school Sacramento State 29-28 in overtime, they were embarrassed by Wisconsin 35-0 in Madison and last week, against a mediocre UCLA team, they lost 27-19. The Beavers are not a bad team, they have just played badly. They have had numerous breakdowns on both sides of the ball but at some point they will get it together and win some games. Last week, they did show improvement against UCLA after making some personnel changes and having key players return from injury. This is what makes the Beavers dangerous at this stage of the season. They will sneak up and surprise somebody and will be looking to do that against the SUN DEVILS. Head Coach Mike Riley is starting to feel the heat and will have this team inspired and ready to play.
Meet the Beaver Offense
Oregon State runs a Pro Style system and relies on its running game to open up its opportunities in the passing game. The Beavers use a halfback and tight end in most alignments but also go with three receiver sets. After two losses in which the offense was simply ineffective, Mike Riley made a switch at quarterback by benching veteran Ryan Katz and starting Redshirt Freshman Steve Mannion. Mannion, in his first start ever as a collegian against UCLA, was effective and efficient completing 24 of 40 passes for 287 yards and touchdown. Mannion was intercepted once but played with the swagger of a veteran. He is only going to get better but his skills will be tested against ASU.
The Beavers have speed and talent at the skill positions with their best player back from injury. James Rodgers made his debut last week after nearly a year being out of the starting lineup. He had five catches for 76 yards and his role in the offense will expand as the season goes on. He is fast, runs great routes and has tremendous hands. If the ball is in the area, he will catch it. Markus Wheaton, from the Phoenix area, is another weapon OSU has at Split End. His seven receptions per game average rank him third in the Pac-12, and his 91.3 yards per game rank him seventh. Halfback Joe Halahuni also came back from a shoulder injury last week against UCLA. He is an effective blocker and receiver. Tailback Malcolm Agnew is a true freshman who will be making his second start against ASU.
On the offensive line the Beavers boast one of the league’s best in left tackle Mike Remmers. Remmers is a very talented player who can run and pass block effectively. He is durable, having started in 28 consecutive games since his sophomore year after starting seven in his redshirt freshman year. The walk-on is the anchor of the Beaver front and is team co-captain. Center Grant Johnson is a force in the middle and has started 28 straight games. Johnson is a smart player very much like ASU’s Garth Gerhart.
How the SUN DEVIL Defense matches up
Oregon State relies on their running game to open up the pass which is typical for Pro Style teams. This is a game that will be dependent on ASU’s front seven on defense to stuff the Beaver running attack and pressure Mannion. The defensive line must control the point of attack and not allow Agnew to get into the open field in the run game. They need to control their gaps and force him to redirect outside the tackles making it easier for the linebackers to make their plays. The pass rush is key this week. If they pressure Mannion, it will make him rush his progressions, vacate the pocket and force throws which will lead to mistakes.
ASU’s linebackers must be disciplined with Beaver halfback Joe Halahuni and not allow him to get open in the flat because he can make the tough yards once he catches the ball. They also need to identify “play action” and be disciplined in their reads so as not to allow cheap yards by biting on fakes to the running back. The defensive backs, specifically Deveron Carr and Osahon Irabor, will need to be on top of their game to cover both James Rodgers and Markus Wheaton. They need to stay on these guys and not let them get into the secondary untouched because they can score at any moment in the passing game. Every phase of the Sun Devil defense must play effectively to shut down the Beaver offensive attack.
Meet the Beavers on Defense
Oregon State’s defensive strength is in their linebackers. Middle linebacker Feti Unga leads the Pac-12 in tackles per game with 10.3. Unga is a fierce defender who has the size and speed to become a potential All-Star in the league. The junior first year starter has a non stop motor, shows tremendous enthusiasm and plays to the whistle every snap. On the defensive line redshirt freshman Scott Crichton is the player to watch. The first year starter already has two sacks in 2011 and recorded eleven tackles against UCLA. He is very active, and like Unga, he plays to the whistle every snap. He is a relentless pass rusher and will not give up pursuit. In the secondary, safety Lance Mitchell plays with a linebacker’s attitude. The senior had 10 tackles last week against UCLA and broke up a pass. Cornerback Rashaad Reynolds makes up in effort what he lacks in size. Although only 5’10”, he has good leaping ability and good footwork.
How the SUN DEVIL Offense matches up
Oregon’s D has struggled throughout three games. They allowed UCLA to jump out to a 21-0 lead early in the game last week and were not able to overcome it. In studying the UCLA game, this unit is vulnerable to the running game. This is a golden opportunity for ASU’s offensive line to come together, dominate the line of scrimmage and open up running lanes for Cameron Marshall and company. Marshall will have the size and speed advantage against the Beaver linebackers, and Kyle Middlebrooks can outrun these guys in the open field.
On the defensive line, Crichton is the only true pass rusher they have so Dan Knapp and Aderious Simmons will need to keep this youngster at bay and keep him off of Brock Osweiler. OSU Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker will be looking for ways to manufacture pressure on Osweiller, so it’s imperative the line, specifically center Garth Gerhart, identify the blitz or any odd alignments the Beavers may form. It’s likely Oregon State will go to trickery and disguise to make up for their lack of pass rushing ability up front. Feti Unga will need to be accounted for at all times either as an edge pass rusher or blitzer.
The ASU receiving corps should have a productive day facing the smaller OSU secondary. While the Beavers have good players that cover well, they simply will not be able to account for everyone in the spread attack. This looks like a solid opportunity for Osweiler to connect with his receivers for big yardage plays against OSU.
Expect the game to be close at the beginning as the fired up Beavers will do what they can to fight for the upset. They’ll hang in there with the SUN DEVILS for a brief period, but unfortunately for Mike Riley’s team, ASU has too many weapons on offense and talent on defense. This will eventually make the difference and wear Oregon State down as the game progresses. After three years of Beaver futility the Sun Devils break another streak Saturday.
ASU 35 OSU 10
Arizona State SUN DEVILS vs. Oregon State Beavers (ASU Hall of Fame Newest Inductees at Halftime)
OCTOBER 1, 2011 – SUN DEVIL STADIUM, 7:30
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