So, anyone hear of anything exciting going on this Thursday? I was kind of hoping to see an electrifying, smash-mouth football game between two teams that are at the top of their respective divisions if you know of one.
What's that? The third best team in the BCS rankings is heading to Tempe to take on the Pac-12 South leading Sun Devils in the most important game of ASU's season? Wow, you don't say?
Poorly written sarcasm aside, this is obviously a huge meeting for both teams and one that fans of both programs have been quite aware of for at least a month now.
The Oregon Ducks were ranked behind the two SEC teams in the initial BCS rankings due to their powder-puff first half schedule so they'll be looking to make a statement in their biggest test of the season so far. As for the Devils, defeating a team that they've lost to seven consecutive times by an average of 20.4 would be the final hurtle to legitimacy for a program heading in an encouraging new direction.
But enough with the hype train already. Let's pluck through the feathers and see what these ducks are really made of:
Same spread option, different day.
The Ducks still specialize in hanging 50+ on you in a blink of an eye with their run game but this time around, there are some unfamiliar names.
The 20212 Oregon attack is lead by a redshirt freshman by the name of Marcus Mariota. And if you haven't heard, he's pretty damn good.
Mariota obviously has the wheels that every Ducks quarterback has had but what sets him apart is his pinpoint-like accuracy that is unlike almost anyone before him. Through the first six games of his collegiate career, Mariota has completed 67.9% of his passes while only throwing five interceptions on 168 attempts. The 6-foot-4, 196-pound signal caller has also shown some serious poise while learning on the job as he has been executing Oregon's no-huddle attack without the slightest hesitancy.
Then again, things are substantially easier when you have someone like RB Kenjon Barner as your option partner. After playing caddy for LaMichael James for the past three years, Barner has finally been given a chance to shine. And he's taken full advantage of it, averaging 6.3 yards a carry while compiling 727 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. The blazing fast senior runs with a lot more power than his 180-pound frame suggests so don't be surprised when he lowers his shoulder and makes something out of nothing this Thursday.
The Ducks compliment the North-South oriented Barner with a shifty, big play machine named De'Anthony Thomas (as if you haven't heard of him). Thomas is about as scary as they come when you put him in space (9.2 yards per carry) so it will be interesting to see how Todd Graham chooses to try to limit the damage (Chris Young/Carl Bradford superhuman anyone?).
Thomas is also the team's leading receiver with 20 receptions for 205 yards but Barner (11 receptions, 111 yards) can also hold his own in the pass game as well. With that in mind, the Sun Devils defense will have to resist the urge to over-commit to the pass rush as Mariota always has an explosive dump off option waiting in the wings.
The fun doesn't stop there though. The Ducks also feature their fair of "you-got-to-be-kidding-me" weapons at the wide receiver position too. Freshman Bralon Addison (16 receptions, 196 yards) has been a very pleasant surprise with an unparalleled first step and some better-than-advertised route running. Beyond Addison, Keanon Lowe has made some big strides in his second year while TE Colt Lyerla (189 yards, four TDs) is pretty much unstoppable in short yardage or red zone situations at 6-foot-5, 238-pounds.
After reading all that, I bet you're now hoping I'm going to tell you the offensive line is a weakness that William Sutton and friends can exploit. Well, that just ain't the case. This unit is full of instinctual run-blockers who instinctively know how to get to the second level. They can be beat in the pass protection from time to time but the threat of play action usually more than compensates for that.
Think the 2009 New Orleans Saints without the whole bounty thing.
This hybrid 3-4 is as opportunistic as they come and full of NFL-ready talent just licking their lips for the chance to make you regret the slightest mistake. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti loves his blitzes and he has the luxury of sending them often with two cornerbacks (Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell) who excel when left on an island.
Both defensive backs are physical in coverage but also able to make a strong tackle when necessary. Although Ekpre-Olomu (four forced fumbles, two interceptions) has the better numbers, Mitchell is usually the one team's fear most as he's shown signs of true lockdown ability in the past.
Working in front of those two are a pair of linebackers who can cover a lot of ground in a little time. Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso are explosive playmakers who tear through blocks in search of the ball with relative ease. Alonso is the stronger of the two but Clay is a savvy senior who isn't fooled too often. Clay has been dealing with a leg injury though so it's possible he may be more exploitable than he's been in the past.
But it's the men the work the defensive trenches for Oregon that are their real strength. Even with the loss of DT Issac Remington to suspension, this unit is still deep, dominant and unlike anything ASU's offensive line has ever faced this season. Defensive end Dion Jordan, a Chandler-native, is basically a Jason Pierre-Paul clone at 6-foot-7 with a massive wingspan that allows him to eat opposing tackles alive. Graham would be wise to leave a running back in pass protection on anything more than a three-step drop because Evan Finkenberg won't be able to handle Jordan's violent hand technique by himself.
On the other end of the line, Taylor Hart has benefited from the attention Jordan's been receiving all season and leads the team 4.5 sacks. Beyond those two, the Ducks have an active rotation of Wade Keliikipi, Ricky Heimuli and DeForest Buckner in the middle with Tony Washington and Arik Armstead on the ends to keep their line in perpetual attack mode.
Overall, this defense has been giving up only 3.5 yards per carry on the season all while allowing their opponents to only convert third downs 29.2% of the time. Needless to say, they don't make it easy to compete with Oregon's offense in shootout.
X-Factor: RB Marion Grice - Or should I say wide receiver? Grice caught five receptions for 101 yards and three touchdowns last weekend against the Colorado Buffaloes. On the season, the stout ball carrier is also averaging 5.6 yards per carry which is the second highest total on the team behind home run hitter D.J. Foster. Most of you are probably wondering why I actually didn't pick Foster here thinking ASU should fight fire with fire but that's just not the way you beat the Ducks. To defeat Oregon, you must keep their offense off the field with long, gradual drives so it's going to be key for Grice to get his in between the tackles and in the screen game. Grice will also be relied to move the chains as he's averaging six yards a carry and 16.6 yards per reception on third down this season.
Final Prediction: Oregon 44, Arizona State 31 - As well as this team matches up against Oregon, I just can't see it happening. The Devils excel in fast break scoring like the Ducks do but a lot of their punch is taken away when there's no run game to fall back on. The Ducks have shown a tendency to put the ball on the ground with seven fumbles lost but ASU will have to win the turnover battle to stand a chance (which I don't see that happening). And even if they get a few takeaways, they'll still have to play some extremely disciplined defense the rest of the time as Oregon always finds a way to get their playmakers the ball with lots of room to work with. At the end of the day, I believe ASU's defense is going to get warn out too quickly and Mariota's accuracy will expose this secondary for what it really is. Expect a valiant effort with the greater of the two talent quotas being too much to take down.