Ducks facing an Improved ASU on Saturday

Eugene – Last year the Oregon Ducks (7-1, 4-1) had their way with the Arizona State Sun Devils (8-0, 5-0) at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe by laying a 48-13 whipping on the home team. A year later, the Sun Devils have a new coach but an old nemesis of Oregon in Dennis Erickson. The new, improved Sun Devils are No. 4 in the BCS and take on the No. 5 Ducks at Autzen on Saturday.

When the season started this year, not many envisioned that in the ninth week of the college football season, the national game of the week, including ESPN's GameDay would be between Oregon and Arizona State. Both teams struggled last year and Oregon's best game of the 2006 season was against ASU. When the season ended, Dirk Koetter was given the boot and Dennis Erickson returned to the Pac-10 after a stint with the San Francisco 49ers.

If you ask around the state of Oregon, folks can vouch for Erickson's ability to turn around a football program and he was coming into a situation that was far less painful than what he faced at Oregon State some years ago. By his own admission, the cupboards weren't particularly bare for a team that had gone to four bowls in five years prior to Koetter's departure.

After the beat down the Ducks inflicted on the Sun Devils last season it might be easy to expect this year's game to be more of the same, however Oregon' Mike Bellotti thinks there have been some significant changes at ASU.

"I think right now they are playing better defense," said Bellotti of Dennis Erickson's affect on the Arizona State Sun Devils. "They are leading the conference in take-away's, which is the most significant stat regarding winning and losing."

Bellotti thinks the Sun Devils are a great second half team and in particular a great fourth quarter team. Programs that carry the reputation for playing great football during crunch time in fourth quarter are considered very special.

"He's done a great job of instilling a greater sense of confidence and they are finishing games which is the difference," said Bellotti of Erickson's affect on the 2007 Sun Devils.

So far this season the Sun Devils lead the Pac-10 in scoring defense at 15.6 points per game. They are also second best in the conference in passing defense, allowing 220 yards per contest. ASU gives up 91.1 yards of rushing and that ranks them third behind Oregon State and USC.

"They're playing better defense overall, they are much more consistent," commented Bellotti on the ASU defense. "They have two very active and athletic defensive ends, (Luis) Vasquez and (Dexter) Davis who aren't the biggest guys but are very nimble. That presents issues to the option offense because those are the people you initially attack."

Vasquez, 6-3, 247 has 24 tackles this year (13 solos) including seven tackles of which three are sacks. Davis, 6-2, 247 is credited with 15 tackles this year (12 solos) with seven and half tackles for loss, six and half of which were sacks. He also has two quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. Bellotti also feels defensive back Justin Tryon (32 tackles, three interceptions and nine break ups) has very good techniques and is good in coverage.

However, the Sun Devil's aren't just known as a good defensive team and they also excel on the other side of the ball. ASU's offense ranks second in scoring (36.9 points) second in rushing (190.9) third in passing (255.0) and perhaps the biggest factor in wins and losses, plus seven in turnover-to-takeaway margin.

"They are significantly different in that they are finding ways to take the ball away and finish games," concluded Bellotti of ASU.

Rudy Carpenter has been consistent this season by throwing for 231.2 yards per game (fifth in the conference) but has lost 99 yards in rushing. While he is not a scrambling quarterback, Bellotti feels he is a big, strong athlete that can create time because he is hard to bring down. Carpenter's top receiver is Chris McGaha with 27 catches. The top yardage-producing receiver is Michael Jones at 54 yards per game. Rudy Burgess has 47 yards per contest. Keegan Herring took over for the injured Ryan Torain as the main ball carrier for ASU and is averaging 72 yards per game with a long run of 76 yards.

The Ducks are entering the contest relatively healthy – that is if you take four major injuries to special playmakers, Brian Paysinger, Cameron Colvin, Jeremiah Johnson and A.J. Tuitele. Three (Paysinger, Colvin and Johnson) are gone for the year and Tuitele may be back at the end of the season in time for a bowl game. For the rest of the team though, there haven't been too many lingering injuries. Sure, Derrick Jones is suffering from an ankle problem and there are other bumps and bruises, but for the most part the Ducks have been able to field consistently the same group on the offensive and defensive lines. The quarterback, Dennis Dixon is being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate and has been well protected all year.

Bellotti knocked on the wooden podium during his weekly media conference when asked about the health of his team and allowed for the four major injuries.

"We are relatively healthy; we have some minor bumps and bruises," commented Bellotti on his team's health. "The good thing is that we have a bye after this week so there is nothing to save it for. We can go all out (this week) here. We are going to get a chance to rest and recover a little bit after this game and that is a positive and I'll sell that to the team. This is a unique season with the two byes and the Thursday game late in the season. We can adjust a little bit but I'm really pleased with the ways the byes are happening."

Bellotti attributes the relative healthy status to the work done by Strength and Conditioning Coach Jim Radcliffe; the Athletic Training staff, primarily Kevin Steil and Kim Terrell; the nutritionist James Harris and the football coaching staff. The headman points to three key areas the Ducks have concentrated on this year in order to keep the Ducks playing: a concerted effort to compete, not over practice and keeping people healthy.

The Ducks will need to be healthy and have all able bodied athletes available for this nationally televised game on ESPN (locally in Oregon on OSN and in Arizona on Fox Arizona) to keep the hopes of a possible national championship in focus. Consecutive wins over two top-10 teams would certainly strengthen Oregon's chances of making the big game in New Orleans. However, a loss would knock the Ducks out of the national championship picture.

While Bellotti is getting more and more questions regarding the possible BCS championship game and Dennis Dixon's chances at the Heisman Trophy, he's still totally focused on the upcoming game. While it is normal coach-speak to say "one game at a time" in this case with Bellotti and the Ducks, it seems to be true. There is no talk of other games, just the next one on the calendar. Each week the Duck's war cry is "win the day". A bye week this late in the season is very useful as it allows Oregon to prepare for the last three games, but for this week it is all about an improved Arizona State.

Kickoff is scheduled for 3:45 p.m. on Saturday.

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