Oregon State's unbelievable 6-1 (4-1 Pac-12) start to the season was guided offensively by the high-power performances of Sean Mannion, viewed by many as the nation's most improved quarterback. However, recent weeks have not been kind to Mannion as an injury sidelined him and then a four-interception performance last week against Washington caused head coach Mike Riley to replace him in the starting lineup with Cody Vaz.
Vaz, a junior who had only seen limited action in five games in 2010 prior to this season, lacks the size and homerun power of Mannion but has been efficient and effective in his brief time as the Beavers' top quarterback.
In three games, Vaz has completed 43-of-69 passes (62.3%) with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. Vaz hasn't shown much in terms of ability to extend plays with his feet as he's on the negative side on net rush yards with a long run of only seven yards.
If Vaz struggles, Mannion can certainly come in and perform at a high level as he averages over 315 passing yards in the five games he's played in 2012 and before being sidetracked recently Mannion was well on his way to all-conference honors this year.
Though the Beavers have been one of the nation's poorer rushing teams, redshirt freshman Storm Woods has emerged as a solid starter with 540 yards on 117 attempts (4.6 average) with six touchdowns. Sophomore Malcolm Agnew, who showed incredibly potential in 2011 before an injury derailed his season, has rushed for 156 net yards on seven carries.
Fullback Tyler Anderson is second on the team with two rushing touchdowns as part of his 45 yards on 10 carries.
At wide receiver, Oregon State boasts one of the nation's most incredible pairings as Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton rank eighth and 14th, respectively, in receiving yards per game. Only West Virginia also has two receivers ranked in the nation's top-15 in that category.
Wheaton, an Arizona native, leads Oregon State with 50 catches and six touchdowns while totaling 679 receiving yards, while Cooks is the Beaver's leader with 790 receiving yards and is second to Wheaton with 44 receptions and three touchdowns. As the statistics show, both players are tremendously dangerous and the Sun Devil secondary will have its work cut out to limit these two dynamic playmakers.
Cooks and Wheaton are not the only capable targets in the Beaver pass game, as OSU frequently uses backs and tight ends as receivers. Running back Storm Woods is third on the team with 23 receptions for 184 yards, while tight ends Colby Prince (13 catches, 104 yards) and Connor Hamlett (12 catches, 153 yards) have been additional favorites for Beaver quarterbacks.
The receiving productivity among wide receivers has been limited behind Cooks and Wheaton, with Kevin Cummings standing third in the group with eight catches for 101 yards.
Oregon State has had the same five starters in every game along the offensive line, left-to-right, with Michael Philipp at tackle, Josh Andrews at guard, Isaac Seumalo at center, Grant Enger at guard and Colin Kelly at tackle. Of the group, Seumalo has perhaps the greatest upside as he is one of only two true freshmen in the nation to start the season opener at center this year and is OSU's first true freshman to start at center since 1978.
Oregon State's Offense in a Nutshell
More than any other game this season, the Beavers' matchup with ASU carries a handful of question marks for Oregon State. Cody Vaz is still a somewhat unknown commodity as a starting quarterback, while key skill players Storm Woods and Markus Wheaton have had recent injury issues.
For these three, the outcomes could be good or bad but at the very least it creates some uncertainties for college football's surprise team of the first half of 2012.
If at full strength, Oregon State has a dynamic pass game featuring two of the most underrated receivers in college football in Cooks and Wheaton. If defenses key too closely on stopping that pair, the Beaver tight ends and running backs can be highly effective as receivers, creating a well-rounded pass attack that is difficult to defend.
On the ground, however, Oregon State is significantly less effective as the Beavers rank 111th in the FBS in rush offense – that's with a healthy Woods as the clear rushing leader.
When Oregon State has the ball, injury concerns will be prevalent on both sides as in addition to the aforementioned potential casualties for the Beavers, Sun Devil standouts Will Sutton and Junior Onyeali have been banged up recently and their involvement is integral to ASU's success.
The Beaver defense has been dominant up front and has seen fruitful returns as one of the nation's leaders in rush defense and scoring defense. OSU's defense has had tremendous continuity thus far in 2012, as with the exception of a deviation due to formation against Washington State, the same 11 players have started every game for the Beavers.
Only a sophomore, left end Scott Crichton has become one of the Pac-12's top defense ends and pairs with fellow sophomore Dylan Wynn to form a talented, dynamic tandem of ends. Crichton is among the national leaders with 8.0 sacks as well as 12.5 TFLs, while Wynn leads all Beaver defensive linemen with 30 total tackles.
At tackle, massive 354-pounder Castro Masaniai and Andrew Seumalo start with Joe Lopez and Mana Rosa behind them. Masaniai and Seumalo have been solid if quiet statistically this year, as the pair has combined for 33 tackles, 6.5 TFLs and 4.0 sacks in 2012.
At linebacker, Oregon State features a handful of excellent athletes that can cover space as well as attack opposing backfields.
The starting trio of D.J. Alexander at SAM, Feti Taumoepeau at MIKE and Michael Doctor at WILL has been a key component in Oregon State's fifth-ranked rush defense. Doctor leads Oregon State with 46 tackles, while Alexander is tied with Doctor for second on the team with 5.0 TFLs. Taumoepeau (who formerly used the surname Unga), the team's leading tackler in 2011 before being sidelined due to injury, has claimed 27 tackles and 2.0 TFLs in 2012.
Experienced and versatile Arizona native Rueben Robinson is listed as the top reserve at all three linebacker positions.
Though the secondary has been a step behind the front seven in terms of defensive proficiency there have been solid efforts, highlighted by potential All-American Jordan Poyer.
The Pac-12's leader and one of the nation's best in interceptions this year, Poyer claimed five picks as well as 27 tackles, including 3.0 TFLs. However, the Sun Devils might be in luck this weekend as Poyer's status is unknown, as he's been battling injuries recently.
Rashad Reynolds has held down the right cornerback position opposite Poyer all year and his performance has been well above average despite the fact that his position partner gains most of the spotlight. A starter all year, Reynolds is second on the team and tops among defensive backs with 43 tackles as well as two interceptions.
If Poyer is unable to play, Sean Martin, tied with Reynolds for second on the team with two interceptions, is expected to start. Brian Watkins, Ryan Handford and Mishawn Cummings provide depth at cornerback.
Tyrequek Zimmerman starts at strong safety and Ryan Murphy at free safety, with Anthony Watkins and Steven Christian as their top reserves. Murphy ranks third on the team with 38 tackles and Zimmerman has chipped in 28.
Oregon State's Defense in a Nutshell
A few key statistics are impressive in Oregon State's favor, as the Beavers rank fifth in the nation in rush defense and 12th in the country in scoring defense. OSU has held some solid offenses in check this year and undoubtedly enter Saturday with a chip on its shoulder after Oregon State suffered its first defeat of the year last week.
ASU's key opportunity exists in the pass game, but the Devils will have to keep Oregon State's active defensive front guided by Scott Crichton from penetrating the Sun Devil backfield.
Special Teams Preview
Kicker Trevor Romaine has had an accurate season after some struggles last year, connecting on 7-of-9 field goals with a long of 43 and his misses coming from 35 and 40 yards.
First-year punter Keith Kostol averages 41.8 yards on 38 punts with a long of 61.
Markus Wheaton is listed as the backup punt returner if Poyer is unable to play, while Jovan Stevenson and Brandin Cooks are also on the depth chart at kick returner.
Both teams back pedal into this game, ASU to a greater extent than the Beavers. This game is crucially important, however, to both squads as Oregon State technically can still control its own destiny in the Pac-12 North but the margin of error is essentially non-existent with in-state foe Oregon as the pack leader. The Sun Devils, on the other hand, are looking to stop the bleeding of consecutive frustrating losses.
A Sun Devil win would carry tremendous magnitude, as ASU has had tremendous struggles in the month of November over the past several years. Collectively, ASU is 1-10 in the month of November since 2009 and the Devils haven't won a road game in November since Nov. 8, 2008 when they took down an eventual 0-12 Washington team.
Additionally, ASU hasn't won a road game in the month of November against a team that ended up with a winning record since downing eventual Pac-10 Conference champion UCLA 9-3 on Nov. 13, 1993. Lastly, after only suffering one loss in the first eight games in Corvallis since ASU joined the Pac-10 Conference in 1978, ASU has dropped four of the past five games hosted by the Beavers.
Ultimately, there are several trends that work against ASU's favor, but if Coach Graham can overcome these demons of the past the end result should be significant support and praise from the Sun Devil faithful. Saturday provides the first of two consecutive opportunities this year to earn a late season win over a quality opponent not based out of Tucson, a challenging rarity for Graham's predecessors.
The challenge in front of the Sun Devils is steep but not insurmountable and a victory by the underdog could generate momentum to carry ASU through the final three following games of the 2012 season.
Keys to a Sun Devil Victory
On the road against a top quality opponent, just about every coach in the game of football will mention the prevention of turnovers as a primary key to victory.
Oregon State is a team that has frequently capitalized on turnover opportunities this season as the Beavers are tied at the top of the Pac-12 and rank 13th on a national scale in turnover margin. Additionally, this week's starting quarterback for the Beavers, Cody Vaz, has yet to commit a turnover during his game action this season.
ASU will almost absolutely have to not only win the turnover battle in this game, but likely also will have to avoid turnovers of their own altogether.
Without a doubt, a great deal of Saturday's offense will occur through the air as the Beavers rank 15th in the nation in pass offense, while the Devils likely will try to work around Oregon State's fifth-ranked rush defense.
Though the vast majority of OSU's offensive output has been under the direction of Sean Mannion, Cody Vaz has shown the skills to facilitate the Beaver attack with tremendous ability as well.
As a whole, Oregon State has a very powerful and effective defense but liabilities have emerged in the secondary as the Beavers enter Saturday ranked 94th nationally in pass defense. Compounding complications for OSU is the probability that Jordan Poyer, who ranks second in the nation interceptions, may not play Saturday.
The deep passing game hasn't been an ultimate strength of the Sun Devil offense but there should be opportunities for ASU's backs and receivers to make noise in the pass game.
To be effective in this area, however, focus and discipline in multiple areas will have to be practiced as the Beavers are a solid team at pressuring quarterbacks (2.57 sacks per game), so the offensive line will have to hold its own on the front end, and receivers down field will have to exhibit sound technique in route running and ball focus on the back end.
The past two weeks have been frustrating for just about everyone involved with or holding any sort of stake in Sun Devil football. Save for the loss at Missouri, very few complained about ASU's effort over the season's first six games. Now that Oregon and UCLA have created sobering experiences, all involved have to look ahead to the final four games of the regular season as opportunities for redemption, not as chances for continued discouragement.
Saturday starts a four-game opportunity for Coach Graham and his staff to show a side of Sun Devil football that fans haven't seen in quite some time—a prideful, determined group able to travel late in the season and create a positive close to a football season rather than a frustrating late-year slide.
Oregon State graduate assistant Trent Bray was ASU's linebackers coach in 2010 and '11 and a graduate assistant in 2009.
Oregon State OL Justin Addie (Mesa Skyline HS), DE Rusty Fernando (Apache Junction HS/Glendale CC), LB Rueben Robinson (Chandler Hamilton HS), RB Jovan Stevenson (Tucson Sunnyside HS) and Markus Wheaton (Chandler HS) are Arizona natives. ASU RB Dante Alexander, DL Jaxon Hood and LB Anthony Jones also attended Hamilton HS.
Oregon State DE Rudolf Fifita attended Mt. San Antonio CC, as did ASU WR Alonzo Agwuenu.
Oregon State WR Obum Gwacham and ASU WR Alonzo Agwuenu are cousins.