It’s difficult to argue whether a team’s conference schedule is favorable before any games are played, but in 2013 and 2014, Arizona State could breathe just the slightest sigh of relief knowing it wouldn’t have to contend with the Oregon Ducks.
Led by Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota, the Ducks tore up the Pac-12 in each of the last two seasons, recording a 15-3 regular season conference record and claiming last year’s Pac-12 title.
With Mariota at the helm, the Ducks were the type of squad that enjoyed an edge over many opponents before they even stepped onto the field. A prolific, fast-paced offense coupled with an opportunistic defense often left foes gasping for air, desperate for the clock to hit zero and bring an end to the onslaught.
Though ASU couldn’t escape Oregon on its schedule for the third year in a row, the circumstances in which the Sun Devils will take on the Ducks this year are somewhat slanted in ASU’s favor.
For starters, the Ducks don’t look the part of a conference-title contender, which is a stark contrast to how Oregon’s program has evolved through the years. Additionally, Mariota matriculated to the NFL, and an early-season injury to redshirt senior quarterback and Eastern Washington post-graduate transfer Vernon Adams has slowed the progress of a once-unstoppable offense. Lastly, ASU avoids traveling to Autzen Stadium for the fourth consecutive year, and instead plays host to Oregon at Sun Devil Stadium, where ASU has won 15 of its past 17 regular season games.
More than three years have passed since the last time these programs met, and while each side has climbed to new heights since Oregon’s 43-21 beat down of ASU, head coach Todd Graham joked about the takeaways his coaching staff gleaned from that matchup.
“Everything we did last time, we're trying not to run,” Graham said at his Monday press conference.
Graham was eventually more forthcoming about the challenges of facing the Ducks for the first time in three years, highlighting the tremendous athletes Oregon boasts at quarterback and running back. Graham also said even though ASU hasn’t played Oregon since 2012, the Ducks’ presence as a national title contender has forced the Sun Devils to keep an eye on Oregon in the summertime.
“As far as not playing them for two years, I mean, obviously in the summer and stuff we spend a lot of time studying,” Graham said. “Any time you're playing the defending national champion you're going to spend some time working on them. They're very different, and they’re very well-coached. They've got a very sound offensive scheme that's very difficult, and the key is not giving up cheap touchdowns. That's the key for us, and being very sound in top-down coverage and being very assignment oriented for misdirection.”
The 2012 contest pitting the Ducks and the Sun Devils against each other was one of many magnificent efforts for Mariota. As a redshirt freshman, Mariota threw for a touchdown, ran for a touchdown and caught a touchdown against ASU, and demonstrated the type of big play threat Oregon’s offense would rely on over the next few seasons.
Even after Mariota’s departure this offseason, the Ducks continued to grab national headlines at the quarterback position, as they courted Adams from the FCS ranks as Eastern Washington.
Many expected the Ducks to remain in the national title conversation this season if Adams could grasp the offense in time after a late arrival to fall camp, but a broken finger suffered in Oregon’s opener changed the Ducks’ season outlook.
After playing through the injury against Michigan State, Adams sat out three of the Ducks’ next four games and threw just seven passes in his stint against Utah. Adams' health severely limited Oregon’s offensive capabilities, but his return against Washington last Saturday offered glimpses of why his presence is so critical to the Ducks’ success.
Adams completed 14-of-25 passes and threw for two touchdowns in a 26-20 victory over the Huskies, and Ducks’ head coach Mark Helfrich said at a press conference last week the performance was encouraging because the errors he did make are fixable.
“I hope its built some confidence and then also, just looking at tape, he made a ton of simple mistakes that we can correct,” Helfrich said. “Having our eyes in the right place, just to start the play and then let his improvise-style take over which is great, you just have to kind of harness both.”
The win over Washington helped the Ducks improve to 4-3 on the season and 2-1 in Pac-12 play. But more importantly, it allowed Oregon to get back on track and give its signal-caller a chance to return to action before a critical bye week.
Following a late arrival to camp and an injury, Adams has seen his practice opportunities limited, but now that he’s back at full strength, Oregon has had an extra week to work its quarterback back into the flow of the offense, which is key considering Graham views Adams as the Ducks’ X-factor.
“He's very athletic,” Graham said of Adams. “He's the guy you can tell is their guy. He's the guy they want in there. He had been hurt, and now they got him healthy. They've got the two offensive linemen back that are healthy. I expect them to be full strength, and he's the guy. I mean, he's the guy that makes it work.”
Adams earned rare national recognition during his time at Eastern Washington that few FCS players are able to achieve. His dynamic run-pass capabilities helped him finish as the runner-up for the Walter Payton Award last season, despite missing four straight games due to a foot injury. The award, given to the FCS’s top player, was in Adams' grasp despite the injury, because he still racked up 35 touchdown passes including seven in a near-upset of Washington at the beginning of the season.
Adams' decision to transfer to the FBS level for his final year of eligibility made him a highly sought after product, and with unproven quarterbacks lining the depth chart at Oregon, Eugene appeared the ideal landing spot. Though the first half of the season didn’t go as planned, Graham stressed the potential Adams brings to the Ducks’ offense and emphasized the importance of keeping him in the pocket on Thursday night.
“They (Oregon) got him back against Washington and they won, and they kind of got a big lead and then Washington came back on them, but he's a guy that's a very dynamic player because of his ability to extend plays,” Graham said. “You've got to keep him corralled, and when he gets outside the pocket he can do a lot of damage because he's got a tremendous support staff around him.”
With Adams' injury troubles and the struggles of Oregon’s backups, quarterback play has been the primary focus surrounding the Ducks’ program. In the midst of an underwhelming season, the Ducks’ remarkable rushing attack has flown under the radar.
Led by sophomore workhorse Royce Freeman, Oregon is averaging a Pac-12-best 297.4 yards per game on the ground. Freeman is complemented by freshman running back Taj Griffin, whose 7.6 yards per carry give the Ducks a change of pace option for a backfield called upon more frequently than any other unit in the conference.
In a conference loaded with high-profile running backs including an emerging Heisman candidate in Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Freeman still leads all Pac-12 backs with a league-best 142.4 rushing yards per game and nine rushing touchdowns.
In his weekly press conferences, Graham has routinely praised the Pac-12’s stable of running backs, and this week was no different. The ASU coach cited Freeman’s patience and vision as two of his best qualities.
“Their (Oregon) running back, he's really good,” Graham said of Freeman. “Their running back, obviously big up front, obviously they've got a great scheme, and it's hard to kind of say who their scheme is like. I think the way they run the ball is very similar to what Arizona does and what UCLA does, so it's more of that style of a running attack. But he's just powerful. He's 230 pounds, he gets downhill, and he's very patient, a lot like Paul Perkins, very patient, not just a bruiser guy, a guy that's very, very patient about what he's doing.”
Oregon’s rushing attack against ASU’s run defense figures to play a central role in the outcome of Thursday’s game. The Sun Devils have held each of their four conference opponents to 2.8 yards per carry or fewer, and the 3.2 yards per carry average ASU has allowed this season is tied with Washington for the Pac-12’s top mark.
Graham said Oregon’s rushing attack benefits from being multi-dimensional, and after playing against teams like UCLA and Utah that rely on a single player for the vast majority of rushing production, the Ducks’ style creates a rigorous challenge.
“Then they (Oregon) have the guys that complement him (Freeman) that have tremendous speed,” Graham said. “So they're not just one-dimensional. They can run it inside, outside, run a lot of misdirection. Every play is a run-pass so they really hold you accountable on the perimeter. He's the second leading rusher in the nation, and good reason for that. A lot of his yards are after contact. We've got to do a great job of tackling him. The strength of our defense is a run defense, so it's going to be a big challenge, going to be a big match-up.”
Aside from pitting a dynamic rushing attack against a stalwart run defense, Thursday’s matchup also features two teams desperately hoping to alter the trajectory of their seasons.
At 4-3, both teams want to at least remain in the conversation for a division title, which even in the unpredictable Pac-12 seems only possible with a victory. Furthermore, a loss puts both teams in a position to need at least a 2-2 finish for bowl eligibility, which is a hard concept to fathom for each program considering their preseason aspirations.
On a conference call last week, Helfrich was asked about playing the role of spoiler, a completely unfamiliar term he acknowledged isn’t something the Ducks have even thought about. For a program that perennially finds itself in the conversation for conference championships, the term spoiler has only been used to characterize its late-season opponents in recent years.
“I haven’t really thought of it that way and I know there’s been a lot of it and a lot of people trying to spoil our business the last few years,” Helfrich said. “But we’re so focused on improvement and the million things that we need to get better at how, how that’s characterized, obviously, you’re the experts on that.”
Though few people expected the Oregon-ASU matchup to serve as an elimination game in the hunt for a Pac-12 title, the loser of this game will find itself in unfamiliar territory given the teams’ play in the last two seasons.
Nevertheless, both coaches have remained upbeat during the bye week and into this week, focusing on the overall improvement of their squads. On Monday, Graham stressed that championships are won in November, and ASU knows it has to win every game from here on out to “even have a chance.”
In Eugene, Helfrich said the Ducks can’t dwell on what’s already taken place this season. After breaking in a number of new starters on both sides of the ball and struggling through quarterback issues, Oregon used its bye week to focus on preparation, rest, and the road that lies ahead.
“Playing so many young guys in key positions, or guys that haven’t played that much, we’re hammering home certain elements that maybe at this time of year, the actual structure of practice has been more to get healthy, get the threes work, and get the scout teams work and all of those kind of things, it’s a little bit more balanced,” Helfrich said. “We’ve always looked at what we have left and what we have right now, as opposed to what’s behind us and I think that’s never going to change.”