SunDevilSource: What's the mood around the program right now from a fan perspective in light of Oregon's 4-3 start, especially with regard to how Mark Helfrich is perceived?
Steve Summers: The fans are mystified by the fact a team that appeared in the National Championship game can return the next season and appear to be so porous on defense and without Vernon Adams on the field as the quarterback, so inept moving the ball.
Even the hardcore fans that see the world through green-colored glasses are unusually quiet about Helfrich. Part of that is due to how Helfrich responds to questions by media. He’s never been one that answers questions directly and while one can get away with that when a team is winning, losing as the Ducks have, especially being blown out by Utah, has caused lots of fans to hold their thoughts on Helfrich. Defensive Coordinator Don Pellum is taking much of the brunt of the complaints about how the team has played, but if there are more losses, more voices will be speaking up questioning whether Helfrich still has control over this team.
SunDevilSource: The absence of quarterback Vernon Adams for three games due to the broken finger he suffered early in the season seemed to really set Oregon back offensively. How key is he to the team's success and why?
Summers: Vernon Adams arrived late into camp because he needed one math credit in order to graduate from Eastern Washington and enrolling into a graduate program at Oregon. There was a fair amount of drama over his enrollment and his struggles to get the one credit, but once he got onto the field, it was clear he was head and shoulders better than anyone else the Ducks have playing the quarterback position. While he’s not Marcus Mariota, he makes plays and has a good throwing arm. The injury held him back but he seemed to be back on track after the Washington game.
One other factor in the game against Washington was the return of Darren Carrington who could be one of the top receivers in the country had he not violated the NCAA Drug Testing policy and forced to miss six games plus playing in the National Championship game.
SunDevilSource: Oregon's defense has struggled this year with assignment busts and other errors under first-year coordinator Dom Pellum. He's been on the staff a long time with the Ducks but something seems different this year. What's going on?
Summers: That’s the $64,000 question. Some say it is inexperience in the secondary. Some say Pellum is in over his head. Some say Pellum is simply carrying on what Nick Aliotti did, and that wasn’t very good either
To be fair to the Oregon defense and Pellum, the Ducks are playing better than they were especially in the Utah game. The defensive front recorded 11 sacks over the last two games, even though they lost to Washington State in double-overtime, and gave up a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. In fact they recorded seven sacks in that game. As I walked out of the press box on the night of the WSU game, I asked myself, how does a team that rushes for over 400 yards and records seven sacks lose at home to a team that they had an eight game win streak over?
SunDevilSource: Who are Oregon's star players and what makes them so good? Who are the non-stars who are important to watch in this game?
Summers: Star players: DE DeForest Buckner 6-7, 290. He’s likely a first rounder next spring and he’s the primary reason the Ducks defensive front plays so well. He quick and rangy; a player the opposing offensive coordinators like to avoid
QB Vernon Adams, he makes plays. He’s only about 5-11, but he has the ability to see the field and possesses a strong throwing arm. He can improvise as Mariota could but don’t expect to see him break off any 85-yard TD runs.
RB Royce Freeman is the Pac-12 leading rusher at 146 yards per game. He is a North-South runner with lots of power and a very nice mixture of speed to go along.
As far as a non-star to mention I’ll go along with DT Alex Balducci While Buckner gets a lot of publicity, Balducci, who is also a senior and possibly could play on Sundays, has been very steady up front.
SunDevilSource: In what areas is Oregon vulnerable this season to be attacked on offense and defense?
Summers: Where is Oregon vulnerable this season, you mean besides in the secondary? Well to answer that question, it’s in the secondary, though they showed some improvement and moving Charles Nelson to safety helped. Even though he spent his freshman year as a receiver, Nelson is a hard hitter and has the knack for making plays.
Offensively, likely ASU will blitz a lot, but that could back fire with Adams being able to throw. The Ducks do have a lot of speed with guys like Bralon Addison, Devon Allen and Darren Carrington catching the ball and Royce Freeman and Taj Griffin running the ball.
By the way, did I mention that the secondary is the Ducks’ weakest link?
SunDevilSource: What type of a game are you expecting and what's your prediction?
The last time ASU beat Oregon was in 2004. Since then the Ducks really had their way with the Sun Devils and certainly during the Mariota years, the games were over by halftime.
I don’t think that is going to happen and the Ducks will have to have the best game of the season to beat the Sun Devils this year. Will that happen? That is a mighty tall order for a team that while better now than in September, has really taken a nose dive from 2014.
If the Ducks play well, then I think it is a very close game, but since it is on the road for Oregon, I just haven’t seen enough good things from the Ducks to make me believe they will win.
If Oregon plays poorly, then the game could be over by halftime, with the Ducks facing a long flight back to Eugene.