ASU to face a balanced Oregon squad

Back in Tempe after a heartbreaking loss in Madison to the Badgers, the Sun Devils will now turn their attention to their next opponent, the no. 5 Oregon Ducks.

Known for their powerful offense, specifically in the run game, Oregon also presents a well-rounded team with a strong defense and special teams units that are often overlooked. "To me, it may be the best football team in the country," Erickson said. "When you look at them on both sides of the football and in their kicking game, they're so balanced it's hard to decide what their strengths are. Offensively it's hard to gain that many yards, I don't care who you're playing. They're just so explosive. Their offensive front is returning from last year, they're a pretty experienced team. Their running backs, LaMichael James and (Kenjon) Barner are guys that quick strike on you all the time.

"I've never seen a team offensively that gets more big plays in the running game than the University of Oregon, has this year and a year ago, Chip Kelly has done a wonderful job with them. They've got skill outside, their quarterback (Darron) Thomas is playing extremely well. Obviously their strength is their running game but when you force him to keep it or when you force him to throw it, he is awfully good. He is faster than Masoli was; now he's a different kind of runner than Masoli but he is a better thrower. They've got all the tools; it's amazing to watch them play.

Through three games this year Oregon's defense is yielding only 4.3 points a game, and was able to shut out opponents in two of those contests.

"I've always thought this, is that they're extremely athletic on defense," Erickson stated. "They've got a number of starters back, they have great speed, very athletic, and they kind of get lost in the offensive success that they've had but they're extremely good on defense. Nick Aliotti does a great job with them; he's been there for a long time. They will bring it a lot; we'll see a lot of blitz from them.

"They've got extremely good athletes, (Spencer) Paysinger is an outstanding linebacker they've got all those guys back from the last couple of years. (Casey) Matthews is returning. So they're an extremely good defensive football team and they've scored points in the kicking game also, punt returns, kickoff returns, so they're about as balanced of a football team that I've seen in a long time."

Only three games into the season, Oregon has already put a total of 189 points on the board, while allowing only 13 against Tennessee. Their dominating offense, taps into the strength of running back Michael James to move down the field.

"Like I said they are so explosive offensively," Erickson commented. "You look at them against Tennessee, for example, and Tennessee is ahead, not for long but they were ahead and they hand the hall off to Michael James and he goes to the right, changes comes back to the left and goes 80-yards for a touchdown, now all of a sudden its 13-7. In saying that, they are very talented, we have our hands full on both sides of the football but it's a challenge that we're looking forward to, the challenge to play at home, to me that's the key."

During Saturday's contest in Wisconsin, linebacker Brandon Magee was taken off the field after being injured during a play. Magee was able to come back later in the game, and will participate in practice on Tuesday.

"He's fine," Erickson noted. "They thought it was a sprained ankle but it was really a pulled muscle in the back of his leg. He came back in and played, he actually probably could have played more but we ended up playing Oliver Aaron instead, who actually played extremely well for us. But Brandon will be back and ready to go for us tomorrow.

"On that front, injury wise, we're in pretty good shape. Corey Adams came back and played about 10-12 plays and actually didn't play too bad for just coming off that knee injury. Toa came in and played some so we're fairly healthy on both sides of the football going into that game."

The offensive line protected for the maroon and gold well throughout the matchup in Madison. With the depth of the offensive line, they were able to use their size and power to provide the rest of the unit with the time and space to make plays.

"I thought (Mike) Marcisz came in and played well at left guard for us," Erickson admitted. "We're playing okay. Obviously when you look at the tape there were some things we didn't do as well as we needed to.

"I feel like we're explosive enough offensively to create problems for some people, so we're a little different than we've been. But, we played okay; we didn't play out of our heads by any means. But the offensive front, they're getting better all the time; I thought (Garth) Gerhart played extremely well for us. Our tackles have to get better and continue to improve. "

Despite the youth of the 2010 Sun Devils, the unit showed their ability to adapt and learn quickly. Although not all the kinks have been worked out, as the season goes on and the unit gains experience, the improvements will only continue.

"Just reflecting back for a second," Erickson commented. "We played okay on both sides of the football; we didn't play great by any means. As we all know, we lost points out there, they ran the football with great success against us and those things have to be cleaned up for us to win games.

"But, I like where we're at and one thing about this team as I see it right now, I think we started one senior on offense and one senior on defense, they will get better as the year goes on because there's a lot of improvement just by playing. So, that's exciting that you can continue to improve as the year goes on and we have a lot of football games left, so we'll see where we're at."

Another inexperienced Sun Devil, Aderious Simmons will begin taking reps with the first team offensive line. The right tackle arrived late in fall camp but with his size and athleticism Simmons has progressively make his way to the top of the depth chart.

"We're going to stick with the same five in the front, yes," Erickson noted. "We have to get Aderious in at right tackle some, that's an area that we have to look at a little bit. He is getting better all the time, he's everything you want but he just hasn't played. During practice, he is going to share some time at right tackle with the first group."

Speed will certainly play a factor when facing Oregon this Saturday, although, the speed of the Sun Devils in comparison to that of the Ducks is something that can only be evaluated when the matchup occurs.

"I don't know, it's hard to tell until you're playing," Erickson admitted. "Their team speed has been proven over a period of time with how many points they have scored. We have team speed, faster than we were, is that faster than Oregon? I don't know, but we're faster than we were. We had opportunities to break some the other day that were there and we just didn't quite get it done, but to compare them, in my opinion, Oregon and Arizona are the two fastest teams in our league."

Quarterback, Steven Threet earned carried the maroon and gold against the Badgers, and although the Sun Devils were unable to come away with the win, Threet showed the mental and physical strength to lead his unit to victory. Threet was 21/33 in Madison and threw for 211 yards.

"I thought he did well," Erickson said of Threet. "He made some good decisions. I thought he threw it accurately, I thought he had great composure in the game. He got hit numerous times, in the head a lot of times which is interesting but he just kept coming back and coming back so he showed a lot of toughness and leadership, which is what the position is all about. He will get better too. The thing about Steven is that he is just starting to get the feeling about what is going on so I just like his feeling for the game, his commitment to the game, his commitment to his teammates. That's what you need at that position and he is doing what we've asked."

Wide receiver, George Bell flew under the radar during the Sun Devils first two contests this season yet he made his presence was known against Wisconsin with his first career reception. Although things always go Bell's way, in the end he was able to connect with Threet on 3 passes for 31 yards.

"George really stepped forward in this last game from the game before," Erickson admitted. "Obviously he had a chance to make a play there early in the end zone and didn't but after that, he really came in and made some plays. It was really good to see him get better in that football game because he hadn't had a lot of chances. He had a little bit of a turf-toe problem last month but I thought he stepped up and played pretty good that game."

The explosiveness of the Sun Devils kickoff return was a constant theme against the Badgers and the depth of the special teams unit has made them a crucial component of Arizona State's success.

"Obviously, with our kickoff return, the coaches have done a good job. Jamie (Christian) and (Greg) Burns, who runs the kickoff aspect of our special teams, we have blocked very well and we have some guys back there that can hit a seam and get going in kickoffs. Obviously heartbreaking, with another inch, who knows what would have happened but that's how it goes. To get there, Omar (Bolden) is in there and playing a lot but he's not in there every time on kickoff returns but he gives you some stuff.

"Punt return, Jamal Miles is pretty exciting. The thing that he is, he is shifty but he's a straight ahead person which you need in punt returns because you have to take one or two cuts and take it and he was able to do that. He made a great run on the one that was called back for the block in the back. He took it and then he made a couple other ones that were extremely, 8 or 9-yard gains that were pretty exciting to see.

There were certainly some deficiencies in this group such as costly penalties, as well as a missed field goal and blocked extra point. Yet, in the grand scheme of things Erickson was pleased with this group's performance.

"I like where we're at with special teams," Erickson claimed. "We have more depth so we have a lot of guys on special teams that can make plays and that's exciting, we just have to continue to get better."

Punter, Trevor Hankins is currently averaging nearly 53-yards per punt. The strength of the senior has proven to be another valuable asset to the Sun Devils special teams.

"It's huge," Erickson said. "It's huge and we're protecting him really well. Omar is snapping the ball really good. The longest one he got, we're fortunate it bounced but he's been kicking it and he's doing a really good job."

Arriving home late Saturday night, the Sun Devils had very little time to digest the heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin, but Coach Erickson and his team have moved on to focusing on their next opponent. The sting of the loss may be hard to shake, but there is no time to dwell as the maroon and gold will face an even tougher challenge against the Ducks.

"We've got these guys coming in here; you better have every focus that you have," Erickson commented. "We talked a lot about locking in and locking out in our mind and after we finished yesterday in here and in the film room and got that game out of our way yesterday then we went out and practiced in preparation for Oregon.

"There were a lot of sad guys on that plane, which to me is a plus because they care. They should care, they should feel bad, and we all feel bad. You have that knot in your stomach that doesn't seem to go away until you start preparing for the next game, and then it goes away. They looked at the tape, they looked at the film and they know the mistakes they made. All we can do now is put it behind us, we're starting our league on Saturday and we have 9 football games left and it is a marathon season with the schedule we have."

In the red zone, the maroon and gold offense struggled to score while in Madison. When watching the game film, it would likely show numerous reasons why the Sun Devils weren't able to put points on the board when given the opportunity, but it all comes down to executing on the field.

"We went through it with our offense yesterday," Erickson described, "and there were five times we were in the red zone and you look at what's stalling, we had two five yard penalties that set us back, we had a dropped ball, we had a wrong route, there were different things. It wasn't what we were doing or attempting to do, it's just executing what we do. It's not about doing anything different; we just have to get better at what we do. I feel like what we're doing right now offensively, we'll get better down there.

"We're not a team that is going to tighten it down on the 2 or 3-yard line and try to blow people off the ball, we're going to do what we do and in seeing the last drive that we made and how we moved it down there is how it's got to be. Obviously the field narrows but the things that you do and we do offensively right now, don't change that much, which is good because you don't have to put in a whole new plan."

There are some similarities between the spread offenses that Oregon and Arizona State implement, which may prove beneficial for the maroon and gold defense. Practicing every day against the same type of offense may give the defense a head start on understanding what to expect from the Ducks.

"We're different kinds of spread teams basically," Erickson said. "They are going to run the football, that's what they do. They're going to run the option with that kid. Its option football, basically that's what it is. The no huddle aspect of that they do and the spreading them out and getting up to the line of scrimmage, yes that helps. The screen pass type stuff that we both do, that will help because they see it.

"The difference is dealing with the option and the things that they do with the option, the reading and the discipline that you have to have. We run the football but we run it to get it to our backs and we read it but we do it some different ways than they do so it's a matter of, we have to take the dive, who has the quarterback, don't get too concentrated on one thing or another. We can't let them hand it off and let a guy go 60-yards every other play so you have to look at different things that you do. It helps us, but we're facing a whole different deal now."

Michigan State head coach, Mark Dantonio suffered a heart attack hours after defeating Notre Dame in overtime over the weekend. As the strenuous and demanding season progresses, coaches often find their health slipping on the list of priorities, but Erickson is confident that he is doing what he can to maintain good health.

"I can't change the past. I don't even worry about that, I feel great," Erickson admitted. "Now that you mentioned it, I might go get on the treadmill. I love this game, I'll do it until they yank me out of here so it's just how it is, you just go and go and go. It happens a lot but for win like that (overtime victory over Notre Dame); I'd probably have one too.

"I don't have much balance right now, but what are you going to do? I work out every day; I go down on the treadmill. Some of you would call it working out, some of you might not but I call it working out. And you try to take the stress off by doing that. You have to do something though, you really do. You keep stuff inside of you, it catches up with you."

Back in Tempe after earning much respect in the college football circles, the maroon and gold have hopefully come back with a much deserved boost in confidence. Competing and almost defeating the no.11 ranked team in the country will hopefully be an experience that the Sun Devils learn and develop from.

"I don't know that they needed to but I know that they felt that they could," Erickson said. "The thing that upsets me about it is the coulda, shoulda, woulda. It wasn't a game that we were going to see how good we were, it was a game that we wanted to win. We wanted to be 3-0, not 2-1. We're to a point now where we have to win football games.

"I think to go into a hostile environment like that and play pretty well, it's not going to hurt our confidence or anything, it's not like we went in and got hammered, we played pretty well to a point and then didn't play well enough. We want to be a better team as time goes on; we're not where we need to be so this will be interesting because they are awfully good. And they have experience coming back, but so did Wisconsin. They had 19 starters back and Oregon has them too so they've been in those types of situations, our guys haven't so we've just got to learn on the run."

Having played in a hostile environment like Camp Randall, the maroon and gold have come back with a deeper understanding of the impact that a stadium full of fans feels like and the distractions it can create for an opponent and urge Arizona State fans to attend Saturday's came at 7:30pm to cheer on the Sun Devils.

"Having played at Oregon over the years and then just the experience that we had at Wisconsin, the fans make such a huge difference," Erickson admitted. "You get that stadium, it doesn't even have to be full, but you get those people excited about what's going on in the football game and our students excited about what's going on in the football game, you gold it out and get a lot of people in there, the motivation that has for our players is unbelievable.

"And not just that, the distractions that it can cause for the opponent, so we'll hopefully have a heck of a crowd this week, I know our students will be there and be rooting like heck, we just need to get as many people as we can and get that thing rocking and give as an advantage."


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