It’s unlikely anyone had Thursday’s cross-divisional Pac-12 matchup between Arizona State and Oregon featuring teams with six combined losses. On the contrary; this one had the feel of a potential conference championship game preview before the season, when voting media tabbed the Ducks as favorites in the North Division, and the Sun Devils No. 2 in the South.
Instead, Thursday’s game is a de facto elimination game. The odds of either team reaching the Pac-12 Championship Game with three conference losses are miniscule.
On top of the league title implications, the loser heads into the regular season’s final month sitting at .500, with the very real threat of missing a bowl game looming.
Oregon at Arizona State
Kickoff: 10:30 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Spread: Arizona State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Erratic Offenses
Both Arizona State and Oregon have been two of the Pac-12’s most prolific offenses in recent years. Oregon’s brand of hurry-up, no-huddle football started the trend other programs around the conference emulated, and few copied the Ducks quite as effectively as Arizona State.
The finger injury that has limited Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams has contributed to a tumble in the Ducks’ offensive production. They still rank No. 12 in the nation at better than 39 points per game, respectable even if a full touchdown off of last season’s pace.
But a combined 122 points scored against FCS Eastern Washington and fledgling program Georgia State vastly inflate Oregon’s overall average. Against Power 5 competition, the Ducks average 30.6 points per game, and have scored in the 20s three times.
Oregon failed to break 30 just twice in the 2014 season; both times resulted in losses. It’s no coincidence that the Ducks are 1-2 in such games this fall.
Arizona State’s average of 29.1 points per game is a drop-off of more than seven from last season. The Sun Devils haven’t had to play musical chairs at quarterback as Oregon has, but senior Mike Bercovici’s play has been wildly inconsistent.
Thursday’s outcome could be as simple as whichever team reaches 30 points first, wins.
2. Can Royce Freeman Get Rolling?
With its quarterback quandary, the Oregon offense leans heavily on running back Royce Freeman. The sophomore’s delivered, averaging 142.4 yards per game and scoring nine touchdowns.
Thursday, he sees an Arizona State run defense that has developed into one of this Pac-12 season’s unsung breakthroughs. Since giving up 178, 284 and 184 yards through the first three games, the Sun Devils have yet to allow any opponent to reach the century mark.
That includes UCLA and Utah, which feature two of the conference’s top rushers in Paul Perkins and Devontae Booker.
Without production from Freeman, the Oregon offense will struggle mightily.
3. Home-Field Advantage?
Hosting might seem like an edge for Arizona State, particularly on a Thursday night when the Sun Devil Stadium student section – nicknamed “Double Inferno” for its placement on either end zone – might get especially rowdy.
But home teams are below .500 in conference games in the Pac-12 this season. Both of Oregon’s conference losses came at Autzen Stadium, and the Sun Devils split their home games against USC and Colorado.
For Sun Devil Stadium to be a true advantage Thursday, the crowd can’t get deflated early. The Arizona State home contingent has a reputation for bailing early if things get dicey, and a few big plays or forced turnovers from the Ducks could send the crowd out to Mill Ave. ahead of schedule.
Arizona State’s shown that, despite its record, it has the ability to hang with the Pac-12’s upper echelon. The Sun Devils imposed their will on UCLA, leading wire-to-wire in an upset in the Rose Bowl earlier this month, and they hung with Utah before a few big, fourth-quarter plays.
Having the capacity to play with the best certainly isn’t the same as doing so consistently, and consistency is the single biggest detriment of this Sun Devil team.
Oregon’s win at Washington last time out is arguably the high point of the Ducks’ season – if not that, then having the opportunity to win at Michigan State.
The trip to Michigan State was arguably the closest Oregon’s come to putting together a full game. Not coincidentally, that was Adams’ last time in real command of the offense. If Adams settles in Thursday against an Arizona State defense that’s had its struggles – the Sun Devils are 95th nationally against the pass – the Ducks can get back on track heading into the final month.