This week's HuffPost Sports spotlight game is Arizona St. at Oregon.
Is there a power conference with more quality teams that is talked about less than the Pac-12? As hyped as some earlier games have been this season -- think Texas-Oklahoma, Florida-LSU and Wisconsin-Nebraska -- nobody seems to be talking about what's going on out west. Well, they should be ...
Saturday night marks a premier mid-season matchup between a vastly improved Arizona State team and an Oregon squad that has rolled since its opening loss to LSU.
Both offenses are lethal, and in many ways, mirror each other. No. 9 Oregon speeds you up like a merry-go-around and forces you to make mistakes in space, while 18th-ranked ASU spreads you around -- often times with an empty backfield -- and says, "Try and stop us."
Let's take a look at some key bullet points for Saturday night's battle, which will kick off at 10:15 p.m. EST on ESPN.
1). Quarterback Play.
Oregon's Darron Thomas is, in basketball terms, what we'd call a "tweener." He's a decent runner and a decent passer, but he's not great at either one. He's fast but not blazing and he's got the arm strength to make most throws, but will leave you questioning him sometimes. For all the talk of Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James, Thomas is Oregon's key. If he can control tempo and effectively run the no-huddle as he normally does, than the Ducks won't have a problem putting up 35-plus in this game. The junior has Oregon averaging an insane 540 yards per game, which is first in the country.
State's Brock Osweiler is the opposite of a tweener. At 6'8," 240 lbs., he is more Ben Roethlisberger than anything else. Osweiler has a tremendous feel for the game, and rarely makes mistakes. A super-quick release and honed throwing motion have allowed him to throw 13 touchdowns and avoid the carried out motion of other taller quarterbacks, ala Ryan Mallett, who was an interception machine at Arkansas, despite having a similar cannon to Osweiler. The Ducks, meanwhile, feature John Boyett at free safety, who is a ball-hawking beast and one of the best in the country. If Sparky's junior quarterback locks in on receivers, Boyett will make him pay.
2). Sun Devils' Defense.
Everybody loves to talk about Oregon's offense, and rightfully so. Ranked second nationally in points scored, it is fast, aggressive and will score in a hurry. But we shouldn't forget about the ASU defense in this game. Linebackers Colin Parker and Vontaze Burfict (40 tackles) are both future pros and love to stuff the run. We've all seen James and Barner struggle against super-physical defenses. While the Devils do not feature the size and physicality up front of an Auburn or LSU, having two premier linebackers who can both run is a solid consolation prize. In what's becoming an increasingly respectable loss to 5-0 Illinois back in September, ASU held the Illini to a mere 17 points in Champagne.
3). LaMichael James' elbow.
Duck fans can pray all they want, but it's unlikely that James -- who dislocated his elbow late against California -- will be able to suit up come Saturday. Just the threat of his speed on the perimeter changes the entire defensive game plan for ASU. The diminutive burner leads the nation with 170.4 yards per game. He already has eight touchdowns and is averaging nine yards per carry. This is a massive loss. The solace for Oregon is that Kenjon Barner is essentially a poor man's version, similarly in the mold of a Darren Sproles. Because of his stature, quick cuts and agility, he allows head coach Chip Kelly to do many of the same things he would had he had James. At least, that's the hope. Furthermore, true freshman De'Anthony Thomas is a load and by far Oregon's most physical runner, not counting fellow frosh Tra Carson, who won't see as many reps. Thomas doesn't have quite the breakaway speed of his counterparts, but his tough running style in between the tackles should help wear down the ASU defense and allow for Barner to break out in the second half.
With any marquee game, it often comes down to turnover disparity. Who made the least mistakes? Who played sound football? Amidst the insanity of Autzen Stadium, the last thing Sparky can afford is an early interception or fumble. As opportunistic as the Oregon defense was last season, through its first five games this year they have forced just four turnovers.
Under head coach Dennis Erickson, the Sun Devils have struggled in big games. Why have they struggled so much? In large part because of turnovers. Despite outgaining Illinois, the Devils lost that game because of three crucial giveaways. The Ducks' defensive blueprint for success last season was being opportunistic and taking chances. Allowing just 19.5 points this season, they will have to integrate such a plan to beat a talented Arizona State offense that is averaging over 35 points a game.
Arizona State leads the overall series 16-15, but Oregon has won six straight times, averaging 42.3 points during that span.
The Sun Devils have lost 15 consecutive games against top-10 teams (many under Erickson) and since its season-opening pounding at the hands of LSU, the Ducks have outscored opponents 224-73.
Ultimately, Oregon -- at home, under the lights, with new uniforms and the College Gameday crew in attendance -- just has too much firepower for a talented Arizona State team yet to prove itself on the road. In a far less balanced Pac-12 South however, expect ASU to win the division. This could very well be a preview of the first-ever Pac-12 Conference Championship game.
PICK: Oregon 44, Arizona State 24
This is the third of our new weekly series previewing the college football game of the week, which comes out every Thursday afternoon. Thus far, we are 2-0.
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