Last year, Arizona State put up a season-high 742 total yards of offense against Oregon at Sun Devil Stadium in its 61-55 triple-overtime loss to the Ducks.
Saturday’s matchup between ASU and Oregon at Autzen Stadium could turn into a similar affair, with both defenses struggling in multiple facets of the game. On the offensive side of the ball, both squads have young quarterbacks and first-year offensive coordinators at the helm.
“It’s the same as last year,” ASU senior defensive linemen Tashon Smallwood said. “They just want to run the ball and they are dealing pretty much with a whole new offensive line and it has kind of been a struggle for them. For us, our goal is to be able to take advantage of that.”
Schematically, Oregon remains a spread offense, with a core balance between its run game, led by junior running back Royce Freeman, and its passing attack.
“I think they do a lot of stuff formation(-wise) and they have explosive players at wide receiver and two or three home run hitters there at running back,” ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “They are very balanced about 240 (yards) a game rushing and 240 (yards) a game passing and you sound like a broken record every week saying the same things, but it does boil down to you have to stop the run and make them throw the football.”
Led by Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich and first-year offensive coordinator Matt Lubick, Patterson said he notices a few recognizable similarities between current Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s offense and the Ducks' scheme, but that there are quite a few distinct differences.
ASU head coach Todd Graham, Patterson and Malzahn all coached together at Tulsa, and Patterson has said ASU's defensive scheme was built to stop rushing attacks like Malzahn's.
“I would say certain things are and there are certain things that aren’t,” Patterson said. “Gus, the complexity came within the simplicity of Gus’s offense. Gus gives the illusion he does all this stuff, but really he just runs the football and he has a simple passing game. That part is very similar (to Oregon). Formation(-wise), he’s not as multiple as maybe what Oregon is. They are a little more multiple formation-wise with certain structures and personnel groupings, but yes there are similarities and distinctive differences.”
Leading Oregon’s offense is freshman quarterback Justin Herbert. Herbert has started the last two games for the Ducks after taking over for graduate transfer quarterback Dakota Prukop.
“I think he’s (Herbert) a different kind of guy, a runner,” Patterson said. “When he gets outside containment now he is still a threat to run the ball and a threat to throw it and you have to do a good job containing him and then with all their read-zone, read-power, read-stretch you got to do a good job making sure that you have accountability on him. He kind of lulls you to sleep. He’ll give it and then run the ball so he’s a very intelligent kid who makes good reads and good decisions, doesn’t seem to put the ball in jeopardy a lot.”
Herbert made his first career start in Oregon’s 70-21 loss to then-No. 5 Washington on Oct. 8. Herbert has played in three games, started two, and is 46-of-76 passing for 507 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions.
“He does a nice job spreading the ball around,” Patterson said. “Threat to run. Great size and maybe just kept him a little more off balance. I think his accuracy might be a little bit better, it's hard to judge in two games, but he made some nice throws. They were down 24-0 against Cal and I thought he did a nice job.”
Last week in Oregon’s 52-49 double-overtime loss to California -- prior to Herbert's game-sealing interception -- he threw for six touchdowns and was 22-of-40 passing for 258 yards.
“(Herbert is) a dude with a tremendous arm and being a freshman he is solid in the pocket and he does a lot of stuff well,” ASU secondary coach T.J. Rushing said. “Threw six touchdowns last week so I don’t treat him like a freshman anymore. It’s week 8 or 9 or whatever it is and he’s an upperclassman and got a lot of football under his belt now.”
Smallwood said one of the biggest things ASU can do on Saturday is pressure a young quarterback like Herbert, similar to what ASU tried to do against UCLA’s Josh Rosen.
ASU sophomore defensive lineman Joseph Wicker said it will be “vital” on Saturday to “rattle” Herbert with its three and four-man fronts.
“We watch a lot of teams and few blitz the quarterback before we get a chance to play them and it rattles them,” Smallwood said. “It rattles them and gets them confused and as a young quarterback you are trying to learn the system you are in, so to do with as much pressure as we bring it can be confusing and definitely overwhelming.”
In Oregon's receiving corps, junior wide receiver Charles Nelson leads the way with 38 receptions for 369 yards and two touchdowns.
Nelson also contributes both on punt and kick returns. He has five punt returns for 101 yards and 23 kick returns for 635 yards, a 27.6 average. He returned one kick for a 100-yard touchdown in Oregon’s game against Washington State.
“Probably the most explosive kicking game that we've played,” Graham said. “Nelson is as explosive of a kick returner as we'll play against, a lot like USC from a return standpoint so it's definitely a big challenge. We've got to go in and we've got to be sound and play well to keep them from having explosives. The big thing is not having explosive plays."
Junior wide receiver Darren Carrington has 25 catches for 373 yards and three touchdowns.
“Carrington goes up and gets everything,” Rushing said. “He’s a dude that can go out and flat out get the ball. So like coach Graham said a huge challenge for our guys, some of the best wideouts we're going to see.”
With Oregon similar to other spread teams ASU has faced in Cal, Wicker said the Bears tended to pass more while Oregon "runs the ball as much as they pass the ball deep."
The Ducks are No. 1 in the Pac-12 with an average of 248.4 rushing yards per game. Freeman is the No. 5 running back in the Pac-12 with 82 carries for 523 yards this season and seven touchdowns.
“Probably the best running back corps we probably faced all year,” Smallwood said. “Royce Freeman, those two fast guys, not trying to say he isn’t fast, because he is too, but he’s big and a complete back and it’s definitely going to be a challenge for us because what they do, they do well.”
Freeman rushed for 1,836 last year and became the only FBS player nationally to accumulate more than 100 yards from scrimmage in every game.
“He’s more deceptive once he gets the ball to the perimeter," Patterson said. "You see him break the ball just like he did against us last year. No one ever catches him. When he is healthy, and you better bring your lunch pail when you are going to tackle him because you are not coming to knock him down. You got to create population and get multiple people (to) tackle him.”
The 5-foot-11, 230-pound running back suffered a knee injury in the first quarter of Oregon’s loss to Nebraska in week three and had to miss Oregon’s game against Colorado before returning the following week.
“It looks to me like he’s been a little bit banged up, but I assume he will be healthy against us just the way the season is going,” Patterson said. “He’s the guy. He’s an NFL running back and the other two guys are 170 pounds and as fast as grease lightning and you can’t let those guys to get the ball to the perimeter and then it turns into a footrace with those guys.”
Oregon sophomore running back Tony Brooks-James also has seven rushing touchdowns on the year, carrying the ball 62 times for 440 yards, while junior running back Kani Benoit has 32 carries for 222 yards and two touchdowns and sophomore running back Taj Griffin has 35 carries for 185 yards and three touchdowns.
In ASU’s game against Oregon last year, Freeman rushed 15 times for 110 yards and had a 64-yard long touchdown run in the first quarter to make the score 10-0.
“For the most part we did a good job stopping him, it was just one specific play that where he broke for 60 yards and that hurt us, but it’s the same thing as last year, but it’s to continue to do that for four quarters,” Smallwood said. “One big run is a difference in the game.”
Rushing said Oregon’s run game sets up its passing game nicely, with the Ducks taking big shots downfield because of their effectiveness in their run game.
“It sets up their play calls and sets up their play-action pass,” Rushing said. “That’s what they want to do run, run, run, play-action shots so we have to be ready for it.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Oregon has faltered, allowing opponents to score an average of 43.3 points and 538.6 yards of offense per game. Last week against Cal, Oregon’s defense gave up 636 total yards of offense, 325 through the air and 311 on the ground.
“I know they are not very good defense, but I still find them to be a good team,” ASU tight end Kody Kohl said. “Every individual on that team is really good. Maybe they just don’t work together the best. I’m not 100 percent the reason why they are not good, but they have some really tall guys up front. Some big guys and then their skill guys are just fast and good players.”
First-year defensive coordinator Brady Hoke is at the helm of the Oregon defense, replacing Don Pellum, who was demoted and reassigned to coach the Ducks’ linebackers.
With Hoke’s arrival, Oregon has switched its typical 3-4 defensive scheme it has had in place since 2009, to a 4-3 scheme.
“Yeah, it’s a lot different,” ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen said about the switch to the 4-3. “They’re more four-down. Last year they were more of a 3-4 team. What stands out is they’ve got some big bodies in there, big kids. Just like they did last year. We’ve got to get ourselves ready in the run game and get off the ball and get our pads down. They do a good job rushing the passer, so it’s like any other week man. It’s great. When you look across there, there’s a lot of good athletes in the Pac-12, so we’ve got to step up and be ready.”
ASU offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said in today’s style of college football, people tend to mix up their fronts more often than not and while ASU has seen Oregon do a lot of four-down looks, the Sun Devils can’t always be 100 percent certain what they will face on Saturday.
“We already started watching their games and I think their four-down front is definitely a really good front,” redshirt freshman offensive lineman Zach Robertson said. “They got big guys in the interior and one bigger guy on the outside (junior defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux) and a lighter guy, speed-rusher type guy (sophomore defensive end Justin Hollins) sort of what we got. So their defensive line is probably the strength of their defense, but as a team we’ve faced better fronts for sure so us getting after them will be a good matchup.”
As far as Oregon’s pressure up front, the Ducks have recorded 18 sacks and 42 tackles for loss, with Oregon freshman linebacker Troy Dye leading the way in both categories. However, as of late, Thomsen said the Ducks have eased off pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
“They haven’t pressured a ton, but I think earlier in the year they tried to a little bit more,” Thomsen said. “But with our situation, like the other night, Washington State wasn’t a big pressure team. The first third-and-long, they’re bringing four off the the field and stuff we hadn’t really worked on that much — and we’ll see it a lot from our defense — so teams will approach us differently because of our situation at quarterback. They’re going to try and come after that young guy, so Oregon may change from what they did against Cal.”
Dye leads the Oregon defense with 44 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss and three sacks and one interception. Dye was the Pac-12 Player of the Week after his debut game against UC Davis, finishing with a game high of 11 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
The 6-foot-4, 225-pound linebacker was the first true freshman at Oregon to start at linebacker in over 38 years.
Oregon freshman safety Brenden Schooler is second on the team in tackles, with 40 in addition to two interceptions. Despite Schooler’s efforts, Oregon is last in the conference in interceptions with five and is at minus-two in turnover margin.
“Maybe they are just ambitious and they are hungry,” Kohl said of the two freshmen standouts. “They are just trying to keep a spot, being freshmen and stuff. I know being a senior you have a little leeway I would say. Seniority. So being a freshman you can’t make too many mistakes and you have to perform your best in order to start, just like (wide receiver) N’Keal Harry. He’s one of our best receivers. That’s why he plays.”
Despite some standouts on the field, especially the younger players, the Ducks are No. 11 in the Pac-12 in rushing defense and passing defense, allowing 248.4 yards on the ground and 290.1 yards through the air.
ASU running back Demario Richard compared Oregon’s defense to a basketball team.
“They got a lot of length on the defense, a lot of tall guys on the defense so you don’t really change nothing,” Richard said. “They just out wide and they got long arms and they can put their arm up in the air and bat the ball down. They may change your gap a little bit, but it’s just another day in the office for me. It’s too easy. When you’ve been playing the game for 10-plus years, it’s easy.”