Last season's meeting between Oregon and Arizona State was an instant classic; a back-and-forth, high-scoring affair that went to multiple overtimes. The bar is set high for the return in Autzen Stadium, and the stakes raised this time around for the home-standing.
Oregon visited Tempe a season ago coming off some early-season losses, but righted the course with a strong finish after getting quarterback Vernon Adams back. This season's early hiccup has turned into much worse for the Ducks. They can only lose once more to reach bowl eligibility. Another October turnaround is necessary if this team's to extend its postseason streak to 13 seasons.
Arizona State, meanwhile, is trying to rekindle its fading hopes in the Pac-12 South. Since starting as a house-on-fire, the Sun Devils have lost three of the last four, and still face remaining dates against divisional leaders Washington and Utah.
Arizona State at Oregon
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 29 at 5 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Oregon -8
Three Things to Watch
1. Ducks By Air, Sun Devils By Ground
Expect another high-scoring tilt in the same vein as last season — not exactly a stretch, given Arizona State has allowed 34.4 points per game on the season, and Oregon 43.3.
How the two sides will amass their points differs somewhat.
Oregon's run defense ranks among the worst in college football at 248 yards per game, which suits Arizona State just fine. The Sun Devils have a bevy of quarterback injuries, leaving freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole the likely starter. ASU is better served feeding running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage than having Sterling-Cole pass against a porous Duck run defense.
Conversely, Arizona State's pass defense ranks dead last in the nation at 384 yards per game allowed. Todd Graham has aimed to mask the deficiencies in the secondary with an aggressive approach up front, but Oregon's capable corps of running backs will force the Sun Devils to respect the rush, opening things up for strong-armed freshman quarterback Justin Herbert.
2. Royce Freeman's Rebound
Oregon's ability to counter a tenacious Arizona State blitz with a dynamic run game is central to alleviate pressure on Herbert, and Royce Freeman plays a critical role to that end.
The erstwhile Heisman Trophy contender had a brutal outing in last Friday's loss at Cal, failing to capitalize on the Golden Bears' shaky rush defense.
While Mark Helfrich has other running backs in the rotation — including Tony Brooks-James, who is averaging seven yards per carry and has seven touchdowns — Freeman's typically the best. Moreover, a recent injury to Kani Benoit does limit options somewhat.
3. Turnover Creation
Both Arizona State and Oregon have made their bones defensively in recent seasons with an uncanny ability to generate turnovers. While Arizona State's blitz-heavy approach has created a decent 11 turnovers to this point, Oregon's overall struggles can be attributed to its inability to force many takeaways at all.
The Ducks' six on the season have them on course for a recent program low, which underscores the most significant drop-off since Nick Aliotti's retirement as defensive coordinator.
While Oregon creates far fewer turnovers than it used to, and almost half the number Arizona State has on the year, the Ducks need to find ways to exploit the Sun Devils' own turnover issues. ASU has a negative turnover differential on the season (-1), but that's one better than the Ducks, even though Oregon has exhibited better ball control (8 turnovers vs. 12 for ASU).
Oregon is firmly in the unfamiliar territory of must-win on Saturday. Last Friday's loss at Cal can be a turning point for the Ducks, positively or negatively --— positive in that they rallied from down three touchdowns to force overtime, negative in ultimately falling short could be the final, deflating moment.
Saturday's affair will answer which outcome Week 8 produced.
Arizona State will score points because of Oregon's shoddy rush defense, but the lingering issues at quarterback render the Sun Devils too one-dimensional to keep pace in a shootout. Herbert's star is on a quick ascension since assuming quarterback duties, and the freshman should shine against the Arizona State secondary.