By John Harris
October 14, 2011
Arizona State (5 – 1), beat Utah last week
Oregon (4 – 1), beat Cal last week
The most significant change for the Arizona State offense through six games of the season has to be the progress and improvement of QB Brock Osweiler. The 6’8” junior is 23rd in the nation in total offense averaging 296 yards per game and has a 13 to six touchdown to interception ratio, with three of those interceptions coming in one game (the win over Oregon State).
Regardless, Osweiler’s decision-making makes this offense successful. But he has help.
The run game is effective with RB Cameron Marshall running behind an effective offensive line, while his receiving corps is a versatile group that can do a little bit of everything (including some inconsistency catching the football, but I digress). The key to this game is whether Osweiler can step up against Oregon’s wide/edge pressure and deliver the football on time and on point.
Oregon will get that pressure on him, but it’d be better served getting that pressure up in the A gaps and making Osweiler sprint out of the pocket to make throws. As such, this will be Osweiler’s biggest test as a starter and perhaps the only true test left for him (the Sun Devils only other road games are at UCLA and Washington State).
After leaving last week’s game with Cal with his arm in a compression sleeve, it didn’t appear LaMichael James would see the field again this season for the Ducks. However, he remains only questionable going into the game with the Sun Devils. The Ducks could be even more difficult to game plan for this week than any other week without James.
Wait, did I just say that? I said more difficult to prepare for - and not more difficult to stop. With no James, the Ducks will use a myriad of different option packages, a bunch of speed sweeps and variations off of the zone read that Arizona State perhaps hasn’t seen, or hasn’t seen a bunch of this season on film.
Kenjon Barner will get the lion’s share of the carries in this one, but the key may be the use of the jet/speed sweep to DeAnthony Thomas and Josh Huff. Huff in particular hasn’t been a huge part of the offense due to an injury and he missed games against Missouri State and Nevada, as did Barner, but both have seen their production increase over the last couple of weeks.
It’s the true freshman Thomas who changes things in both the run and passing game. The youngster from Compton, CA is electrifying. After a rough opener in which he fumbled a couple of times, he’s become the team’s main weapon behind James. With James, the Ducks are more of a vertical running game, using inside zone runs to pop James into the open. But without him, expect the Ducks to stretch the Sun Devils “all 53”, making them play sideline to sideline and put inside linebacker Vontaze Burfict to the test.
Burfict is a tremendous player, but is he in shape enough to run with the Ducks’ jackrabbits? Arizona State will counter with six defensive backs on the field at all times, but Oregon can use a ton of option as it did against Oregon State in 2009 with Jeremiah Masoli at the helm. Not having LaMichael James is NOT the death knell for this Oregon run game, quite the contrary.
Arizona State’s offense has gone through a transformation, to say the least, from last year to this one. The biggest difference, figuratively and literally, is Osweiler. The emergence of Cameron Marshall as a bellcow #1 running back has been a huge boost for the offense as well.
But what changes the game for the Sun Devils is the presence of WR/KR/Do-it-all offensive weapon Jamal Miles. He leads the Sun Devils in receptions per game and has a touchdown passing, receiving, kick returning and punt returning. Give him the ball on a speed sweep this weekend for a touchdown and he’ll be the only player in college football (that I can think of off the top of my head) to score or account for a touchdown in every offensive way imaginable.
What he does for the Sun Devil offense is make life very uncomfortable for an opposing team’s linebackers. When he’s in the slot, he’s extremely dangerous as a catch and run demon, but he does his best work out in space; hence he’s excellent in the return game. Oregon’s defense hasn’t seen an offense with as many varied weapons as this offense possesses and Miles is the absolute X factor. Oregon’s defense can pressure Osweiler into some poor throws. It can load the box to stop Marshall. But, Miles is the one player who is currently giving Oregon DC Nick Aliotti a bit of heartburn late at night.
In last year’s game, the Sun Devils played the role of Santa Sun Devil, giving Oregon the ball seven times – three fumbles and four interceptions… and lost the game by 11. It was the only time all season long that the Ducks’ offense seemed to be running in quicksand other than the game at Cal. The Ducks’ defense bailed out Darron Thomas and company in that one.
With this one at Eugene, the pressure is on the Oregon offense to keep the Sun Devils’ defense on the field for long stretches at a time. If the Sun Devils want to play six defensive backs on the field for a majority of the game, the Duck offensive line had better dominate the line of scrimmage and make sure it gets a hat on Burfict throughout the night.
The Ducks presumably won’t have James in the lineup, but when that has been the case, the Ducks have gone to a more varied run attack As such, the Ducks will use every possible variation of the run game possible. Oregon will win time of possession, turn over Osweiler a time or two and win its toughest Pac-12 game to date.