Death, taxes and a high-powered Oregon offense.
Over the past several years, the Ducks ranking among the nation's elite overall offenses has been a natural course of action in college football and, though players such as All-American LaMichael James and two-year starting QB Darron Thomas are gone, the song remains the same up in Eugene.
With Kenjon Barner now in a featured role at running back, the existence of the nation's top all-purpose threat in sophomore De'Anthony Thomas and the emergence of an efficient quarterback in Marcus Mariota, through six games Oregon has proven yet again to be as dangerous as it gets at the FBS level.
Currently, Oregon ranks fourth in the nation in rush offense, eighth in total offense and second nationally in scoring offense. This comes as no shock to Pac-12 fans and yet again proves that the system in Eugene is as effective as it gets, as the results have been similar year after year regardless the experience level of the athletes engineering the attack.
Red flags have emerged, however, at areas such as turnovers lost (94th nationally) and tackles for loss allowed (102nd), but thus far those mild inefficiencies have yet to be costly to any significant degree.
Similar to his counterpart Thursday for ASU, quarterback Marcus Mariota is a first-year starter efficiently performing well beyond his years. The redshirt freshman from Hawaii defeated Bryan Bennett (who still sees action in certain packages) to be the starter and has thrived ever since.
Mariota currently ranks 21st in the nation in pass efficiency with 1,301 passing yards with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions and a completion percentage of 67.9%. A capable rusher as well, Mariota has netted 221 yards with a touchdown.
A reserve behind LaMichael James for three years, Barner was tabbed as Oregon's primary running back for his senior season and has produced outstanding results to the tune of 727 yards on 116 carries with nine scores in only six games. A speedy, smart veteran, Barner is both reliable and explosive and is joined by Thomas to form what is likely the top one-two rushing punch in college football.
Thomas, perhaps college football's most outstanding big-play threat, averages an amazing 9.2 yards per carry (377 yards on 41 rushes) with six scores, while also leading Oregon with 20 receptions for 205 yards and three touchdowns. More so than any player in the game today, opposing defenses must keep a consistent eye on his field location—and even when successful with that, containing his explosiveness has proven to be a tremendous challenge.
A familiar name to Sun Devil fans, Byron Marshall, younger brother of ASU's Cameron Marshall, has seen action for the Ducks as a true freshman and has gained 258 yards with three touchdowns on the year.
At wide receiver, Oregon has used a spread approach with no clear game breaker emerging save for Thomas. Daryle Hawkins (11 catches, 99 yards), Josh Huff (five catches, 72 yards) and Keanon Lowe (13 catches, 133 yards) are listed as the starters with Bralon Addison (16 catches, 196 yards), Eric Dungy (five catches, 41 yards) and Will Murphy (eight catches, 81 yards) scheduled to come off the bench.
Perhaps the most dangerous overall offensive player aside from Thomas is freakish tight end Colt Lyerla, a player able to provide a beastly presence as a receiver or as a rusher. On the year, Lyerla leads Oregon with four touchdown receptions as part of his 12 total catches for 189 yards, while also adding 77 rushing yards and a score.
Along the offensive line, Oregon certainly misses the veteran presence of honors candidate Carson York and features—from left to right—tackle Tyler Johnstone, guard Ryan Clanton, center Hroniss Grasu, guard Nick Cody and tackle Jake Fisher. Of the group, Johnstone, a Chandler native, may have the highest upside and has been deemed by many as a midseason honors candidate.
Oregon's Offense in a Nutshell
Without question or even a need for sophisticated strategizing, Oregon plans to do what it does best against ASU – run early, run often and run quickly.
Between a redshirt freshman quarterback starting his first true road game and a Sun Devil defense that has shown some complications in run defense, Oregon undoubtedly will use its unparalleled athletes to establish its will on the ground. After that, the Ducks likely will pursue further balance in the pass game but Oregon can be expected to run until ASU is able to bring the attack to a stop.
If ASU can be even moderately stout against the run and the ball is frequently placed in Mariota's hands, the high-pressure Sun Devil defensive front can look to create some advantages. However, if Oregon's intentions unravel as planned, ASU will be quickly left in the Tempe dust and face a steep uphill challenge to overcome against an active Duck defense.
Oregon Defensive Preview
The Duck defense is praised as being one of the program's best in recent memory, with top notch athletes from front to back.
Oregon's rush defense ironically is just a slight step ahead of ASU's – 37th in the nation to ASU's 38th-ranked rush defense. The pass defense statistically is less than stellar as Oregon is 70th in the country, allowing 233 yards per game through the air, though that number is fairly distorted as the Ducks' large victory margins typically force teams to throw more often than not.
The Ducks rank fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (20.0 ppg.) and are one of the nation's better squads with 10 total interceptions. Oregon also ranks in the nation's top-25 in sacks with 17.0 total to rank 24th in the FBS.
Though the statistics aren't as spectacular as the team's offensive categories, the Ducks have incredible team speed on defense and have had multiple standout efforts this year, highlighted by the 49-0 shutout of typically high-powered Arizona.
Up front, Chandler native and expected all-conference member Dion Jordan splits time at defensive end as well as a pass rush linebacker out of a 3-4 alignment. Taylor Hart, a very solid lineman in his own right, starts at tackle as does underrated performer Wade Keliikipi. Tony Washington occupies the other starting end position.
The productivity across the line has been evenly spread through six games, with Hart (4.0 sacks), Jordan (3.0) and Keliikipi (2.0) all contributing in the pass rush.
Oregon's backup line includes a handful of youngsters as true freshmen DeForest Buckner and blue-chipper Arik Armstead are behind Jordan and Hart, respectively, while Mesa product Sam Kamp, a redshirt freshman, is slated as Washington's primary backup.
Veteran Ricky Heimuli brings a big body with experience as Keliikipi's top reserve.
Kiko Alonso has been highly enigmatic during his college tenure in Eugene—ranging from the lows of a season-long suspension to a Defensive MVP performance in the most recent Rose Bowl. There's no doubting his talent and Alonso is well on his wall to All-Pac-12 recognition, as Alonso leads the Ducks with 36 total tackles and 7.0 TFLs, while also tying for the team lead with two interceptions.
Athletic, rangy ‘backers Michael Clay and Boseko Lokombo flank Alonso in the starting lineup at WILL and SAM, respectively. Clay is second on the squad in total tackles (33) behind Alonso, while Lokombo has totaled 14 tackles this year.
Even with the injury loss of potential All-American safety John Boyett, Oregon's secondary boasts a host of tremendous athletes, guided by the standout sophomore duo of Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell at cornerback.
Backing up Ekpre-Olomu and Mitchell is another pair of sophomores, Dior Mathis and Hill.
Ekpre-Olomu has had an outstanding season in pass coverage with 10 pass breakups and two interceptions, while adding 25 tackles and four forced fumbles. Mitchell has chipped in 13 tackles and is tied for second on the team with five pass breakups.
Patterson ranks third on the team with 28 total tackles and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions, while Jackson has posted 26 tackles and is tied with Mitchell for second on the team with five pass breakups.
Oregon's Defense in a Nutshell
Oregon can be expected to pressure Sun Devil QB Taylor Kelly in multiple ways, as the Ducks trust their defensive backs enough to creatively take risks with its front seven. The linemen and linebackers also boast incredible versatility, so players such as Dion Jordan and Kiko Alonso are far from one-dimensional in how they can hurt the home team.
ASU's offensive line will be charged with the task of steadily holding up at the point of attack and give Kelly the time he needs to not be overwhelmed in what is clearly the biggest football game of his life.
The speed of Oregon's defense has the potential to create difficult in ASU's frequently used underneath pass game to players such as Chris Coyle, D.J. Foster and Marion Grice, placing the onus of responsibility upon Kelly to make smart yet advantageous decisions in the pass game.
Lastly, there is no better time than Thursday for Cameron Marshall to be the back that fans know he can be and provide a rushing force that Oregon has to respect and ultimately open up more chances for the Devils in the pass game.
Oregon Special Teams Preview
The Ducks aren't forced to kick much, but when they do they have one of the nation's best in punter Jackson Rice, a Ray Guy Award finalist in 2011.
Rob Beard has been inconsistent thus far by only connecting on 4-of-7 field goal attempts with one blocked kick, though he is a perfect 40-for-40 on extra points.
Alejandro Maldonado handles kickoffs and backs up Beard on field goals.
The ever-dangerous De'Anthony Thomas handles kick and punt returns and is generally considered the Pac-12's most dangerous threat at both—though his kick return numbers are modest this season at only a 14.7-yard average. Josh Huff joins Thomas on kick returns, though Keanon Lowe and Bralon Addison have seen time in such a role this year. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is listed as the backup punt returner.
The magnitude of this game is equaled only every few years and a Sun Devil win in all likelihood will be considered the most significant since the legendary shutout of Nebraska in 1996.
Thursday provides an early (pitch)fork in the road for Todd Graham at ASU; a win will validate the championship claims he's made since his December arrival in Tempe, but a loss would continue the Sun Devil status quo against the league's elite.
On paper, there are few—if any—black and white matchups in which ASU is the favorite. Offense, defense and special teams—there's a reason Oregon has appeared in a trio of consecutive BCS postseason games and is in the National Championship conversation this season.
ASU will have to play the type of game from start to finish that hasn't been seen in years—likely well over a decade—to shock the college football world.
However, there could be something special in the blacked out Tempe air Thursday night. Undoubtedly, the Devils are due after nearly a decade of defeats to the Ducks.
Games such as USC, Arizona and others that remain on ASU's schedule absolutely will carry strong significance but there's something special about the opportunity that lies ahead of the Sun Devils Thursday.
We all know Todd Graham has no intention to delay his impact on the Sun Devil football program and Oregon gives him that chance. After all as "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair has always said, "To be the man, you gotta beat the man!" and Graham will get no better chance this year to show he is the man.
Keys to a Sun Devil Victory
Discipline Like Never Before
Though there are some intriguing matchups, truthfully ASU will have to play a near perfect game to survive as the victors Thursday. That measure of survival will entirely be a product of pristine discipline in all facets. Offense? Take care of the ball, convert third downs and produce touchdowns in the red zone. Defense? Attack with out fear but remain focused, tackle without error, create a turnover edge and pressure the quarterback. Special teams? Make kick attempts and handle the ball properly on returns.
Games played in Sun Devil Stadium this year such as Illinois and Utah have been as close to picture-perfect as we have seen from ASU in quite some time, but naturally the level of competition will exponentially increase Thursday.
Oregon is a team that can capitalize on even the slightest window of opportunity, requiring ASU to immaculately execute in all phases.
Oregon certainly will be expected to run much more than pass, but the times in which Marcus Mariota is back to throw ASU absolutely needs to apply pressure frequently and ferociously. This is an endeavor much more easily said than done, as Oregon's skill position speed can completely counteract an overzealous pass rush if defenders over-pursue or are not soundly bound to their assignments.
Though it has been dismissed as a non-factor, Thursday will be the first true road game for the redshirt freshman, as Oregon's matchup with Washington State was played in Seattle, Wash., a location actually closer to Eugene, Ore., than Pullman, Wash.
The opportunities to attack Mariota may not be abundant, but when chances emerge Will Sutton, Junior Onyeali, Brandon Magee and company have to convey the message that the Devil defense wants nothing more than to put him in the dirt and force turnovers. If Oregon's ball security or confidence at quarterback can be impacted this way, ASU can begin to gain advantages on defense.
Win the Day
The Devils need to treat Thursday as Thursday and nothing else. No focus on how a win could propel ASU to Rose Bowl contention, no concern for the immediate validation of Todd Graham's instant impact in Tempe.
It can't be a matter of the past or the future; no worries for what could have been. No thoughts on what would have happened had Sam Keller not suffered a season-ending injury trying to stiff arm Haloti Ngata in 2005. No regret for the fact that a win in 2007 would have meant a Rose Bowl for ASU and no worries about what could have been in 2010 sans a multitude of turnovers.
Basically, this game must be treated as a game—no doubt a crucially important game—but a game all the same. The focus must be on the 60 minutes spanning the first through fourth quarters, not the minutes, months or years prior to the game or what may or may not occur thereafter.
• Oregon DB Reggie Daniels and OL Tyler Johnstone (Chandler Hamilton High School), DE Dion Jordan (Chandler High School), DL Sam Kamp (Mesa Mountain View High School), DL Isaac Remington (Valley Christian High School/Phoenix College) and OL Andre Yruetagoyena (Scottsdale Chaparral High School) are all Arizona natives. ASU RB Dante Alexander, DL Jaxon Hood and LB Anthony Jones attended Hamilton High and CB Deveron Carr attended Chaparral High.
• Oregon WR Josh Huff attended Houston (Texas) Nimitz School, as did ASU RB Marion Grice.
• ASU DE Cutter Baldock is a native of Tigard (Ore.) and attended Tigard High School.