In desperate need of a win, the struggling Oregon ranked Arizona State Sun 12 battle featuring a team in turmoil against one on the rise.
Oregon State has lost five straight dating back to last season, and is trying to avoid going 0-4 to start a season for the first time since 1996. The Beavers fell 27-19 last weekend in the Pac-12 opener against UCLA, and for the eighth consecutive season won't enter October with a winning record. Oregon State has already played a Top-25 opponent on the road this season in Wisconsin, an experience which head coach Mike Riley insists will help his team come Saturday night in Tempe.
"You have to use your past experiences to hopefully improve yourself and be more ready the next time. It's going to be more and more important as we go," said Riley. "It's really amplified this week with a good Arizona State team."
Arizona State looks like a re-energized program, and it's not the new uniforms talking. The Sun Devils made a statement against then No. 23 USC, winning handily 43-22. The win snapped a 11-game losing streak to USC, and vaulted the Sun Devils back into the polls, making them a serious contender in the Pac-12. After being upset at Illinois two weeks ago, head coach Dennis Erickson emphasized the importance of his club's focus this week against the struggling Beavers.
"I'd like to think we learned a lesson. Nothing against University of Illinois by any means, but we better have our hat on the correct way, and we talk about it all the time. Our leaders need to know that," said Erickson. "If we play as well as we can, Oregon State is going to come in and give us everything they have. If we don't, they're going to come in and beat us."
Arizona State leads the all-time series with Oregon State 24-12-1, but the Beavers have claimed the last three meetings. Oregon State won 31-28 in Corvallis last season.
Redshirt freshman Sean Mannion made his first career start last weekend against UCLA in place of starter Ryan Katz, and went 24-of-40 for 287 yards and one touchdown. Oregon State has scored just 47 points in three games, and is averaging 385 yards of total offense per game, with 259.3 coming through the air. The Beavers boast two of the top receivers in the league in James Rodgers and Markus Wheaton, who is third among Pac-12 receivers in catches per game (7) and is seventh in receiving yards per game (91.3).
Oregon State is averaging 125.5 yards rushing per game, with the top running back Malcolm Agnew gaining 223 yards in one game with three touchdowns. Agnew has missed the last two games due to injury, and no other player has rushed for more than 50 yards through three games.
"Offensively we need to find balance. We found some runs that were pretty good, but our total productivity is not good," said Riley. "We hope we run the ball better. It's going to be a big chore against this defensive front - they don't like you to run on them, and they're very good against the run."
The defense is allowing 373.3 yards of total offense through three games, including 163.3 rushing yards per game. The secondary is allowing just 210.3 passing yards per game, with opponents scoring eight touchdowns through the air. The Beavers have struggled generating takeaways, with only two fumble recoveries. In terms of pressure, the unit has recorded five sacks and 13 tackles for a loss of 51 yards.
Junior linebacker Feti Unga leads the league in tackles per game with 10.4, while defensive end is tied for sixth in tackles for loss with four. This week Oregon State will face a unique spread offense from Arizona State, led by quarterback Brock Osweiler.
"The discipline of assignment will be huge, and the other key issue is that they run a lot more of those bubble screens than UCLA did," said Riley. "They'll throw a ton of balls out to the flat and block for that guy. They get a lot of one-on-one situations, so one-on-one tackling in the open field is going to be huge - you miss a tackle, it becomes a big play."
Osweiler has registered plenty of big plays for the Sun Devils, and is averaging 273.5 yards passing per game. Osweiler has thrown for eight touchdowns so far this season, with four of those scores going to receiver Aaron Pflugrad, who was added to the Biletnikoff Award watch list this week. Pflugrad has caught 22 balls for 344 yards, and Gerell Robinson has added 17 catches for 234 yards and two more scores.
The rushing attack, which is posting 149 yards per game, is led by running back Cameron Marshall (141 yards rushing and three touchdowns against USC) with 73.5 yards rushing per game (4.4 ypc) and five touchdowns. Arizona State has turned the ball over six times, with three of those coming on interceptions by Osweiler. The Sun Devils are converting 42 percent of their third downs. This is a group that continues to mature according to Osweiler, and is benefiting from veteran experience.
"The majority of the offense has been playing and starting for a number of years," said Osweiler. "Everybody has been through those situations before, everybody knows how to handle them now and I think it's a real veteran group understanding what needs to take place during games."
The ASU defense, as Riley noted, is fast and full of playmakers. Arizona State is allowing 346.5 yards of total offense per game, including just 209 yards passing and 137.5 yards rushing (3.9 ypc). The Sun Devils have generated eight takeaways in four games (including four against USC), and have a destructive pass rusher in All-American LB Vontaze Burflict, who has 22 tackles, four sacks and one interception this season. The unit also leads the Pac-12 in third down defense, with opponents converting just 23.5 percent (12-of-51); Arizona State has also forced 12 three and outs so far this season.
The red zone defense was especially good against USC, as the Sun Devils kept star quarterback Matt Barkley in check.
"To me it's about character and about want-to, and understanding the situation and just making plays. We've been able to do that. We made four plays on defense. I guess it was the `bend but don't break' theory," said Erickson. "It was kind of how it went. They moved the football and we were able to get turnovers when we could on defense. That was the difference in the football game."