Expert preview and viewing guide: ASU at Oregon

Arizona State (5-3; 2-3 in the Pac-12) travels to Eugene to play Oregon (2-5; 0-4) on the road Saturday at 2 p.m. on the Pac-12 Network. Even though the Ducks have yet to win a conference game, they're 7.5 point favorites over the Sun Devils, due in part to ASU's injury woes. Here's our analysis preview of the Ducks.

Oregon Offensive Scheme

Oregon is 2-5 overall and 0-4 in the Pac-12. It is the first time the Ducks have lost five straight games since 1996, and they're at risk of not winning at least five games for the first time since 1991. This, just two seasons after they went 13-2 and played in the National Championship Game. 

Head coach Mark Helfrich -- formerly the program's offensive coordinator under previous coach Chip Kelly -- and play-caller Matt Lubick each coached at Arizona State earlier in their careers. Helfrich was offensive coordinator under then-coach Dirk Koetter, though Koetter was the play-caller. Lubick coached defensive backs at ASU through 2009 before leaving for Duke. 

Even though Oregon is in rebuild mode with key offensive personnel, it remains a potent and dangerous team with impressive balance. The Ducks are very difficult to prepare for because of how many different formations and personnel groupings they utilize -- as much as any team in the Pac-12. 

Still, whereas early in Kelly's years in Eugene the Ducks had a massive advantage simply due to the contrast between their style of football and that of everyone else in the Pac-12, that chasm has been closed significantly. 

Now, the Ducks try to stay ahead with a few new wrinkles and the better caliber of players they've been able to attract via its on-field success and the brilliant Nike-aided marketing and promotion of the program via their progressive uniforms and other branding strategies, as well as their elite facilities. 

But this year they aren't ahead of the curve in terms of personnel because they've been forced to turn to a true freshman quarterback, Justin Herbert, and four redshirt freshmen starting offensive line. What is difficult to understand or accept as reasonable is why the Ducks have found themselves in a situation in which they need to start so many freshmen on offense as a program that had won no fewer than 11 games in five straight seasons through 2014, when they were in the national championship game. 

Recruiting should have eliminated any possibility of the Ducks being this young on the field, and especially at quarterback, where they failed to develop someone within their program who would be ready to take over after a departed 2014 Heisman Trophy winner. 

In Herbert, Oregon has a 6-foot-6 quarterback who is mobile with a plus-arm, and looks like a future star. The young line is nonetheless big and athletic, and still generating a lot of opportunity to run the football, which has long been the bread and butter of the Ducks. 

Oregon's run game is centered around sophomore Royce Freeman, a 5-foot-11, 230-pound block of muscle who somehow manages to play big while making himself small and hard to tackle. The Ducks average a league-best 248.4 rushing yards per game, and are second at 5.8 yards-per-carry, behind only Washington. It's not quite as good as they've done in recent years, but still pretty impressive all the same, and especially so given their youth up front. 

The Ducks are a high-tempo team that incorporate a lot of window dressing and strive to get defenses flowing in one direction only to take the play another direction, including in the zone read and run-pass option components of their offense with Herbert, who moves well for his size. They'll use a lot of two back and two tight end formations and make opponents defend a lot of structures.

Oregon will flex multiple tight ends out and use them in an assortment of applications. Its big goal, beyond running the ball, is to try to get Carrington one-on-one down the field. Last year the Ducks were able to do it against ASU as Carrington had a 100-yard receiving day and also dropped what would have been a 50-plus yard reception on a breakdown at the secondary level.

Nobody in the Pac-12 attacks the boundary side of the field better than the Ducks, who will get as many as four receiving threats working on the short area of the field, including running backs and tight ends, all in an effort to get one player free. They'll also run opposite of this, or up the middle after attempting to generate a numbers advantage through the formation strengths to the boundary. Last year, Freeman broke off a long touchdown run on this type of action against ASU. 

ASU is going to bring a lot of pressure at Herbert, almost certainly, and the Ducks like to counter-punch against the overload pressures with throw back slip screens to the back or tight end.

The Ducks will throw field side fades to Carrington or fellow receiver Dwayne Stanford, and try to get their tight ends and running backs matched up against ASU's linebackers in man coverage in a variety of ways. 

This is an offense that doesn't have a wide variety of athletes for ASU to key on. Only four players have more than 10 catches through seven games played. ASU has to understand why the targets are going to be in all of the formations and make sure to stick with those key playmakers. 

Oregon Offensive Personnel

QB Justin Herbert (No. 10) -- A 6-foot-6 true freshman and local product out of Sheldon High in Eugene, Herbert is the quarterback of the future. His action this season has primarily come against Washington and Cal, and he threw six touchdown passes and completed 22 of his 40 attempts against the Golden Bears. He has a big arm and yet also moves very well, particularly for his size. 

WR Charles Nelson (No. 6) -- The highest-volume target for the Ducks, Nelson is undersized at just 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds, but he's very slippery. The Ducks use him as a possession receiver, usually in the slot and often coming out of bunch set trips. He's going to be targeted on a lot of underneath hitch, curl and comeback type routes and not be a big yards per reception player, though occasionally they'll try to slip him vertically. He's also one of the best kickoff returners in the Pac-12, and had a 100-yard touchdown return against ASU last season in Tempe. Last season he started out on offense but switched to defense and was a first-team all-conference player as a safety. 

WR Darren Carrington (No. 7) -- Far and away Oregon's best healthy receiving threat down the field, Carrington is a clear-cut NFL prospect with a great combination of athletic range, route running and playmaking ability. He has 22 catches for 326 yards and a team-leading three touchdown receptions. Carrington is averaging nearly 15 yards per catch. Last season at ASU in a 61-55 triple overtime Ducks win, Carrington had five catches for 107 yards and one touchdown. Oregon will try to clear out his side of the football -- and he'll line up either into the boundary or wide on the field side -- by occupying safeties with other routes to generate 1-on-1s. They'll work him across the formation on deep post routes designed to catch backside safeties asleep. 

TE Pharaoh Brown (No. 85) -- A fifth-year senior, Brown suffered a catastrophic knee injury in 2014 and didn't play last year while recovering. He's a huge-framed athlete at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds and fourth on the team with 15 catches for 174 yards and three touchdowns. He's a good red zone and short area target in particular who also blocks at the line of scrimmage with his length. Brown is a threat from a 3-point stance on arrow routes and other concepts working against linebacker coverage.  

RB Royce Freeman (No. 21)  -- A 5-foot-11, 230-pound punisher who nonetheless possesses terrific short-area elusiveness and stop-and-start explosion, Freedman averaged a league-best 6.5 yards-per-carry last season as a sophomore. Even this season, playing while banged up and with four redshirt freshmen offensive linemen blocking for him, Freeman is averaging 6.4 yards-per-carry and already has seven rushing touchdowns. Freeman runs within his framework extremely well and has the ability to get narrow and not give defenders a lot of surface area to grab or strike when running inside. He's not especially quick to the outside. 

RB Tony Brooks-James (No. 20) -- A scat back at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, Brooks-James is averaging 7.1 yards per carry. He's a major contrast from Freeman, who is a yards-after-contact player and inside runner. Brooks-James is someone who tends to get most of his yards before contact and takes advantage of opportunities to reach the edge and turn the corner. He's somewhat of a threat in the passing game, but not as much as these hybrid players have been in the past for the Ducks. 

Oregon offensive line -- A largely rebuilt unit featuring four redshirt freshmen starters who are already physically well put together, on balance. Senior Cameron Hunt has 36 career starts at guard and is the only veteran. 

ASU Defense Against Oregon Offense

The Ducks are so bad on defense (as you'll read below) that even if ASU gives up a reasonable amount of points, it should be able to keep pace. We can be sure that ASU coaches Todd Graham and Keith Patterson will attempt to put Oregon's young quarterback and offensive front under a lot of pressure. They'll try to corral the Ducks' run game on early downs with overload blitzes and stunts and make Oregon throw the ball more than it would prefer to. 

This is a dangerous strategy because the Ducks induced more than a handful of big play breakdowns last year, and have an approach to doing so that is probably the most refined of any opponent in the league. 

ASU has to tackle better in this game, and its linebackers and safeties must be aware of, and quick reactive to, the routes that have tended to challenge the Sun Devils. 

Though they may not do it, ASU would be well served to try to decoy pressures and drop into eight man zones at times in order to try to force more turnovers, or blitz in a way that isn't as easily read pre-snap. Ultimately, it's going to come down to whether they have coverage busts. 

Oregon Defensive Scheme

The Ducks are now on their third defensive coordinator in four seasons under Helfrich, and they've become increasingly worse during that span.

Former San Diego State and Michigan head coach Brady Hoke was hired by Helfrich to be the team's defensive coordinator in January, but his impact has not started to turn things around in the slightest, and the Ducks are arguably the worst defense in Division I football. 

Hoke had never been a defensive coordinator before being hired in that capacity at Oregon, and his move to change the team from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme has largely been a disaster. Oregon is last nationally, allowing 30.4 first downs per game, and last in total defense at 538.6 yards per game. They are giving up 43.3 points per game, which is last in the Pac-12. 

Oregon is bad at stopping the run, bad at stopping the pass, bad on third downs, bad in the red zone, and tied for last in the Pac-12 at generating interceptions. 

The Ducks have nothing that they can hang their hat on defensively. They've given up a minimum of 41 points in each of their last four games, all losses, including a record 70 points allowed to Washington at home two weeks ago. 

It doesn't help that almost all of the Ducks' defensive starters are guys who are either new or were role players or deep reserves prior to this season. The recruiting development on the defensive side of the football has clearly been neglected in recent years. 

As might be expected, the Ducks have no clear identify on the defensive side of the ball. They don't bring a lot of blitz pressure, but also don't often enough get to the quarterback with four pass rushers. They don't do well at stopping the run with four. They don't cover effectively, and aren't trying to induce interceptions via coverage. It's a head-scratching approach with regard to game planning in particular. 

There is nothing tricky about the Ducks' scheme except for their remarkable ability to fool themselves on a consistent basis within plays. They have more assignment errors as a percentage of their overall reps than anyone in the Pac-12, and they play so relaxed at the linebacker and safety level that teams tend to be able to easily march down the field by sustaining drives even when they don't have busts. 

It's a very conservative approach to defensive football that usually places just six defenders in the box with the inside linebackers deeper split than almost any team in the league. The approach is one that practically begs opponents to run the football. Washington State, a team which had minus-52 rushing yards against ASU last week, had 280 rushing yards on 40 attempts with six rushing touchdowns against the Ducks on Oct. 1. 

There are too many ways in which the Ducks break down defensively to go through the list extensively. They've stopped less than they've yielded, to be sure. It's a suspect approach with poor execution. But their linebackers are particularly suspect to lack of awareness and being out of position, and their safeties don't track to the football well and are easily manipulated. Up front, the Ducks have been blocked very easily and have allowed a lot of access to the perimeter in the run game. 

Oregon Defensive Personnel

LB Troy Dye (No. 35) -- A true freshman hybrid player who works from the SAM position, Dye typically is on the wider side of the field. He is a force contain blitzer on early downs, the guy Oregon brings more than anyone else when it does pressure. He has a team-high three sacks as a result, and 7.5 tackles for loss. He's a good young player but still early in his development. 

CB Tyree Robinson (No. 2) -- A hybrid defensive back who is remarkably rangy even as a cornerback at 6-foot-4, Robinson is really a freak of an athlete more than he is a tactician as a defensive back. A sign of his is he's been targeted a lot despite having such great length and athleticism and let a lot of balls be caught in front of and around him. The result? He's third on the team with 38 tackles and yet has just four passes defended and no interceptions. That's a bad ratio.  

CB Arrion Springs (No. 1) -- This field side corner is Oregon's best man coverage defender and a very good athlete who also has plus size for the position at 5-foot-11, 205 pounds. When breakdowns have occurred here, they've mostly been in zone assignments with communication breakdowns. He'll run with the best receivers in the conference far more often than not. Springs has 32 tackles and a team-high eight passes defended.  

ASU Offense Against Oregon Defense

There is just no excuse for not being able to move the ball consistently well against the Ducks, even with a banged up unit. Even if the Sun Devils are forced to start true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole at quarterback, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey should be able to get enough points on the board for an ASU win if the defense does its part. 

What is key for ASU in this game is just to not turn the football over or have other self-inflicted wounds like penalties and other negative plays. The Sun Devils don't need to be too cute or try to do too much. There should be plenty of success on very basic plays on first and second downs and an ability to get into rhythm, play more up tempo after the first gained first-down on drives, and run the ball better than they have in the last month. 

Prediction

If ASU was healthy, and especially if it had a healthy Manny Wilkins at quarterback, this prediction would be ASU and relatively clear cut, even on the road. But the Sun Devils are severely banged up and Wilkins is doubtful as of Friday morning.

This is a game in which ASU junior running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage should combine for 200-plus rushing yards and the Sun Devils should also have a minimum of 200 passing yards as well, no matter who the quarterback is. Oregon's defense doesn't stop much of anything that is well executed, and the game will ultimately come down to whether ASU can cover and tackle defensively, or force enough turnovers for it to not matter. 

With freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole likely to lead an offense that has struggled on the road, even with Wilkins at quarterback, the prediction can't be in ASU's favor. Oregon is a challenging environment for a young signal-caller, and even though Oregon has struggled defensively, it should put up enough points to win against a Sterling-Cole led Sun Devils team. Oregon 41, ASU 33. 


Sun Devil Source Top Stories