Cole Elsasser/USA Today Sports

Ten Takeaways: Oregon

Arizona State dropped to 2-4 in the Pac-12 with its 54-35 loss at Oregon on Saturday. Here's a analysis-based look back at the game.

1. When starting defensive backs Armand Perry and Kareem Orr walked onto the Autzen Stadium field in street clothes during warm ups it was clear that Arizona State would maximize its pending bye week by trying to rest up injured players who probably were capable of playing in a more meaningful game. Orr had started the team's two previous games despite being at far less than full strength due to a knee sprain suffered on Oct. 8 against UCLA. Perry has been week-to-week or even day-to-day with a bothersome turf toe injury. Neither dressed against Oregon, and others including junior starting running back Demario Richard probably would have also played in a must-win game. Richard was dressed and went through warm ups in Eugene. Senior wide receiver Tim White actually did play, but only as a return man on special teams. Perry, Orr, Richard and White were participants in ASU's practices immediately after the Oregon game, which indicates a willingness on the team's part to not add additional wear and tear on some of their key players. None would have been playing at full strength anyway, so it's an approach that makes sense. Between Washington State on Oct. 22, and Senior Night against Utah on Nov. 10, there is a 17-day period in which the Sun Devils are trying to do everything they can to get healthy. 

2. With Orr and Perry out, the Sun Devils once again started a lineup in the secondary that was different than any of their previous eight games this season. Senior De'Chavon Hayes and junior Maurice Chandler started at the cornerback positions, while junior safety Marcus Ball started his fourth game in a row at Bandit, and junior J'Marcus Rhodes got his first start of the season at field safety. Making matters worse, senior SAM linebacker and key defensive communicator Salamo Fiso didn't play, forcing ASU to move junior Devil backer Koron Crump to the position for the first time. Crump is capable of making an impact as a pass rusher, but in pass coverage at a position different than he's ever played? It didn't work. True freshman quarterback Justin Herbert completed 31 of 42 pass attempts for 489 yards and four touchdowns, with Oregon tight end Pharaoh Brown leading the way with seven catches for 129 yards and two touchdowns. Often, Brown was taking advantage of ASU's coverage inexperience at the linebacker and safety levels. It was just too easy for Oregon. The continuous changing of parts on the field has contributed to a lack of efficiency in ASU's defensive motor, with the Ducks offense being the latest to take advantage of the sputtering Sun Devils.

3. Ball had 14 tackles to lead the Sun Devils against the Ducks, and also a 45-yard fumble recovery. That's the fourth straight game in which Ball has led the team in tackles when he moved to become the team's starting Bandit against UCLA. He had 10 tackles and one interception against the Bruins on a ball that was batted into the air by senior Laiu Moeakiola. A week later at Colorado he tied Moeakiola for the team lead with 10 tackles and then had a team-high nine tackles against Washington State. There's no doubt that Ball has been a tackling machine when playing the Bandit position. But that's also where the Sun Devils like to use robber coverage and have tended to have opportunities at interceptions, and as a team they haven't had a single interception in the last three games. They have just nine passes defended in those three games, none of which were by Ball. Opposing quarterbacks completed 96-of-136 pass attempts (76.8 percent) for 1,152 yards (384 yards per game) with seven touchdowns and no interceptions in those three games. 

4. ASU's inability to generate turnovers has been one of the key elements of its three-game losing streak and was a major factor again on Saturday in Eugene when it lost the turnover battle 3-1. Through nine games the Sun Devils have generated just 12 turnovers (1.33 per game) this season. That's the tenth best rate in the Pac-12, only better than Oregon and Arizona. Those two teams are a combined 1-9 in conference play. When the Sun Devils have been very good under Graham, it's been in large part due to a high rate of turnovers generated and one of the best turnover ratios in the Pac-12. ASU led the conference with a plus-15 margin in 2013 when it won 10 games, and finished second at plus-14 when it won 10 games in 2014. This is the worst ASU has done in turnover generation and turnover margin in the Graham era and the result is a team that is now going to be challenged to finish the season with a winning record. 

5. True freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole got his first college start and was a key figure in ASU's three turnover deficit against the Ducks. He threw three interceptions, the second of which sealed the team's fate. With ASU trailing 47-35 and threatening to close it to a one-score game, Sterling-Cole was intercepted at the Oregon 1-yard line on a pass headed for the end zone with about four minutes left. The interception was returned 84 yards, with true freshman N'Keal Harry chasing down Oregon defensive back Tyree Robinson from behind, a fantastic effort play. Three plays later Oregon rushed for a touchdown to effectively end the game, even though Sterling-Cole threw another interception on ASU's next possession. Immediately following the game ASU coach Todd Graham said the turnover differential was a big part of the loss. Days later, he said Sterling-Cole has a lot of promise but ball security is something that he'll need to continue to work on. 

6. No matter what happens the rest of this season, Sterling-Cole has already demonstrated as a true freshman that he's going to be capable of playing quarterback very successfully in the Pac-12 at some point in his career. That may be as soon as next season, and the ASU starting quarterback position may again be competed for this off-season. In seven games of action, sophomore starter Manny Wilkins has completed 60.5 percent of his throws with six touchdowns and five interceptions. Currently, Wilkins is much further along in terms of knowledge of the scheme and has several more years of college practice experience and development. But that gap is going to close as time progresses and particularly in light of ASU's overall disappointing season to this point, there's a good chance we're still talking about a quarterback competition next year. Sterling-Cole's combination of arm talent and size make him very intriguing. He has the potential to make a lot of pro caliber throws from the pocket, but is inaccurate right now on the move, and very green with regard to his understanding of the position. A year from now? He's a player with a very high ceiling. 

7. ASU not only struggled to stop the pass, as Oregon rushed for 245 yards on 46 attempts (5.3 yards-per-carry), with only 23 yards from Herbert. For the second time during their three-game losing streak, the Sun Devils were run over, giving up more than twice their game average. Tackling continues to be a major problem, as it has been since early last season. Also, not having Fiso was a major factor, and the Sun Devils just aren't rallying to the ball collectively as a group. With Orr and Perry out of action, they were not only downgraded with their pass coverage, but also their perimeter run defense. Oregon won the perimeter blocking on the afternoon, and had too much offensive balance for the Sun Devils to get consistent stops. The result? ASU gave up 734 yards, the second-worst result in history, and 8.3 yards per play. 

8. The Sun Devils did make a defensive adjustment in the third quarter, going to an odd-front that was a lighter 3-3-5 look. They moved junior Devil backer Koron Crump into a MIKE alignment from which he was either attacking through the interior gaps or moving pre-snap to an edge rush position on either side of the line of scrimmage. All of this was designed to keep the Ducks' young offensive front off balance and uncertain with regard to their protections. This contributed to Oregon punting on two of its first three possessions of the third quarter. They also missed a field goal, and only managed three points in the quarter before the Ducks were able to adjust. Crump had 10 tackles and one sack, to bring his season total to nine, which leads the Pac-12. 

9. When senior starting guard Stephon McCray was knocked out of action early in the game with an ankle sprain, the Sun Devils were down two starters along their front. Sophomore guard Sam Jones was already out with an ankle sprain of his own, and ASU was starting walk-on junior Tyler McClure for the second straight game at center ahead of junior A.J. McCollum. The injuries are of course not preferred for the Sun Devils, but have given offensive line coach Chris Thomsen an ability to evaluate redshirt freshmen Zach Robertson and Steve Miller in live Pac-12 action. The experience should pay dividends for those players down the road, and increase their preparedness for next season and beyond. In Jones, Robertson, Miller, sophomore Quinn Bailey and true freshman Cohl Cabral, ASU has a very good nucleus of young offensive linemen who can build up and mature together over the next two years. 

10. Oregon's defense was last in the Pac-12 and among the worst nationally in yards allowed, and especially bad against the run. ASU wasn't able to dominate Oregon with its rushing attack sans Richard, as it perhaps needed to with Sterling-Cole getting his first career start on the road. Part of that, of course, comes down to the younger offensive line not generating enough opportunities for the ASU running backs. Junior Kalen Ballage ran well but managed just 62 rushing yards on 18 carries with two touchdowns (3.4 yards per carry). Ballage managed better as a receiving threat out of the backfield, with a team-leading six carries for 105 yards. Backup Nick Ralston, a freshman, got his most extended career action and showed well, with 10 carries for 54 yards. He's got a good combination of size, burst and vision and that should be demonstrated even more clearly as he gets additional reps into the future. 


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