SunDevilSource: Oregon has now lost five games in a row for the first time since 1996. What is the mood around the program in light of this season's severe disappointment for the Ducks, and how likely is it that a coaching change could be made at the end of the season?
Stephen Summers: It’s hard to gauge the mood as players seem to be sticking to scripted answers but we keep hearing that the situation with Oregon football is worse than it appears. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I think that the team probably was bolstered by nearly beating Cal in double-overtime while at the same time being very disappointed to lose the game when it looked like they were in a position to win it.
This week so far, the responses from players in interviews have been pretty standard. Arrion Springs, who was demoted from starter to backup, took responsibility for his poor play and said he understood the coach’s decision. He feels the Ducks have to do a better job of tackling (obviously). I’m not sure most of the interviews that are available really have many meaty or challenging questions however.
How possible is it that Mark Helfrich’s days are numbered? If the Ducks continue to lose, which I think is a real possibility, then it is my opinion that Oregon will make a change. However, there are voices that contend that Helfich, who led the team to an appearance in the National Championship game two seasons ago, should have an opportunity to right the very tilting ship known as Oregon football. Which side will prevail?
That sort of depends on how this season plays out. If the Ducks show some signs of life as they did against Cal, then Helfrich might get a second chance. Lose the rest of the games badly like they did against Washington and Washington State, then I believe there will be a new head Chip… I mean coach.
SunDevilSource: Brady Hoke -- who had never been a defensive coordinator previously in his career -- was hired this year to turn around an Oregon defense that took a step backward in 2015, and has only since gotten worse. How much of this is related to the ongoing transition to a 4-3 scheme, and what are the other major factors?
Summers: Perhaps there was some problems going from the 3-4 to the 4-3 but I think the problem gets down to basics. Poor tackling, bad leverage, unawareness or wandering eyes and even daydreaming have had a bigger impact than scheme.
Perhaps having all those advantages of superior facilities and having a media corps that focuses solely on the Ducks might be a factor too. Compare what goes on in Eugene with what goes on in Valley of the Sun. The media in Oregon has one professional team -- the Trailblazers -- so that means that a successful Oregon Ducks' program gets a lot of people to cover it. In Tempe, the Sun Devils are competing with the Diamondbacks, the Cardinals, the Suns and Coyotes. That’s a big difference.
The facilities are top-notch, but one has to wonder if coaches and players aren’t sitting back enjoying what was so generously supplied to them by a very gracious man and his wife, without realizing that just putting on an Oregon jersey is going to win football games?
So, I think there is a whole litany of reasons why Oregon’s defense is so porous, and in my opinion the scheme is low on the list.
SunDevilSource: Freshman quarterback Justin Herbert threw for six of his eight touchdown passes this season in the team's loss to Cal last week. Is he rapidly improving and what type of things should we look for with Herbert at the position on Saturday?
Summers: Justin Herbert is a great story because he’s from Eugene’s Sheldon High School, obviously a lifelong Ducks fan, but broke his leg in the third game of his junior year in high school, so he didn’t get much recruiting attention. His only other FBS offer was from Nevada and he snapped up the Ducks' offer, committing as soon as Oregon offered.
He’s a very nice young man, well-mannered and polite, but…
Oregon’s policy of closing all practices including all fall camp practices (and spring practices for that matter) prohibited anyone being able to watch him in practice. The only information coming out about him came from the UO Athletic Department blogger, whose reports are cleared by the Oregon coaching staff. So there wasn’t any real opportunity to see what this kid can do.
I was surprised that the Ducks switched signal-callers especially for the toughest game of the year against then-No. 5 Washington. Herbert’s performance in his first start was predictable. He had a pretty pedestrian outing, but that’s what I would expect for a true freshman who only had one year of experience in high school under his belt. Marcus Mariota only had one year of high school experience also, but at least he had a redshirt year to work with Pac-12-quality players.
Anyway, up until the later stages of the second half did I really get to see Herbert perform and for the most part he was impressive.
I will share an observation I had of him in warmups. I felt he had a tendency to throw rainbow passes, meaning the ball was softly thrown in an arc. Not that is bad thing, but I always think that even in warmups, all those throws are chances to rehearse what the player is going to do in the actual game. My question was did he ever gun the ball?
Well, the answer is yes, he can gun the ball on a rope as he did to Charles Nelson in the end zone, but if I saw the interception correctly he threw in the second overtime period, he threw a rather soft ball in an area that he needed to put some smoke on it.
My guess is that he learned from the mistake and I understand he is a quick study so I doubt he’ll make that mistake again.
SunDevilSource: Who are the Ducks' key offensive and defensive players in this matchup and why?
Summers: I think this game will come down to whether the Oregon offensive line is better than the ASU defensive front. Who shoves whom? If Oregon’s front can move the line of scrimmage north by six inches then Oregon will have great success running the ball, and if the Ducks' line can give Herbert a little breathing room and he learned his lesson about zipping the ball, then Oregon will have success.
Incidentally, Royce Freeman could be a huge factor if he is totally healthy. Last week he said he was fine but I noticed he didn’t have the same ability to cut as he has in the past. If Freeman is not 100 percent, then Tony Brooks-James and Taj Griffin are both capable of scoring any time they touch the ball (provided the offensive line does its part.)
Darren Carrington is the go-to receiver along with Charles Nelson. The Oregon tight ends are all big targets and are tough matchups no matter who they play.
Then there is the defensive side of the ball.
Frankly, if ASU has Pac-12 quality running backs, and a reasonably healthy offensive line, in my opinion it doesn’t matter who the ASU quarterback is -- the Sun Devils will rack up a lot of yards and points.
This is the worst Oregon defense I think I’ve ever seen.
SunDevilSource: Oregon doesn't typically give out injury information, but are there any starters who won't play against ASU or are unlikely to?
Summers: The Ducks just released the two-deep and there aren’t any changes on it. Starting offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby, wide receiver Devon Allen and backup Drayton Carlberg are definitely out. After that, it is yet to be determined.
SunDevilSource: What type of game are you expecting and what's your prediction on the outcome?
Summers: Likely the game will be high-scoring, feature lots of yards given up and depending if ASU’s defense goes completely away (I’m assuming Oregon’s defense will not be any factor unless there has been some miraculous epiphany and the Ducks' defense plays unlike it has all year) then the game could come down to the last possession.
I think the ASU backs will have a big day and ultimately, the Sun Devils get the win.