One of the bigger questions of this early college football season is whether Oregon is “back” or not. This week’s game at Arizona State could be an indicator. But are the Ducks making a return to being a national power again? Are they College Football Playoff contenders? It may still be a little too early to tell but one thing is for sure in this early season, the Ducks’ offense is certainly back to where we are used to seeing it. They are among the FBS leaders in both scoring (56.0 ppg) and total (609.0 ypg) offense.
Don’t overlook the defense either as UO holds its opponents to just 303 yards per game, good for 33rd nationally. Not too shabby for the Green and Gold. Or the Green and Lightning Yellow. Or the Green and Metallic Steel, etc., etc. Well, you know the Ducks and their penchant for endless uniform combinations and colors.
The last time the Ducks flew south to play in the desert it turned out to be one of the all-time great matchups between the two, eventually won by Oregon 61-55 in triple overtime. Expect the point total to approach those lofty heights again. Arizona State’s defense is ranked No. 121 in the country, relenting 505 yards per game. Yep, that’s sieve-like. And this from a unit that is coordinated by Phil Bennett, who has had a track record of success on that side of the ball. But his task is amplified here this week as the Ducks’ offense seems like it is back to its old flying form.
Oregon at Arizona State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 23 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Oregon -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Line vs. line
This will be a star-studded cast of skill people that Oregon brings to town. But under Mario Cristobal, the O-line has transitioned from a technique-based unit to a power-based mano-a-mano unit. The ASU D-line is an experienced group that hasn’t played up to snuff so far. Their lack of effectiveness has led to the Devils giving up point totals of 31, 30 and 52. If UO’s line establishes dominance early, especially with the way they have played in the first half of games so far this season, the Ducks could exceed those point totals.
2. Freeman will run free, man
Whoever passes less wins. That’s because the running game and controlling the tempo will be a huge key. Both QBs have been on-point so far (Justin Herbert has hit 72 percent of his passes and Manny Wilkins has hit on 68 percent), but Ducks RB Royce Freeman is averaging 153 yards per game (fifth nationally). His vision, patience, acceleration and even power make him a difference-maker. He’s a big back that runs with authority so the Devils’ defense will have to get a big push on the Duck offensive line, fill the gaps and get low to take him down. If he’s hitting his stride in this one, game over.
3. Third down
This one’s pretty easy and pretty self-explanatory. Oregon’s offense is ranked 10th in the country in third down conversions with a 53 percent success rate. Meanwhile, Arizona State’s defense sits dead last in the FBS at 129th in the country giving up third down conversions at a 55 percent rate, allowing 24 of their opponents’ 44 third downs to be converted successfully. If the Devils have any designs on turning this into an Upset Special, they’ll need to be more clutch on defense when their backs are against the down markers. Incidentally, Oregon’s defense also is ninth nationally in putting the stops to opposing offenses on third down.
Although Oregon is 3-0, this still isn’t the world-beating Ducks squads of four or five years ago. If ASU can make some adjustments and get its offense going like the Sun Devils did in the second half at Texas Tech, they could pull a big stunner. And frankly, head coach Todd Graham and his staff really NEED a win like this to get the program back on track and save their jobs. Last week’s loss at Texas Tech was a 52-45 track meet, but the Devils were down 21-3 after the first quarter. This Oregon game could be much of the same, although the Ducks’ defense is better than the one the Devils faced last weekend in Lubbock.
With games at Stanford, vs. Washington, at Utah and vs. USC coming up after this, it could be argued that this is ASU’s best chance to pull off a win until November. I think the Devils will play tough vs. UO, but in the end the Ducks have the star power on offense and the better defense to put this game away in the end.
Prediction: Oregon 56, Arizona State 31
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.