After breezing through the non-conference schedule -- a first quarter glitch versus Colorado notwithstanding -- Arizona State (3-0) figures to get its first significant challenge of the season on Saturday when it hosts Oregon State (2-1), a team that returns most of its starters including several key All-American-caliber skill position players from last season, when it drilled the Sun Devils 44-10 in Corvallis and went 10-4 overall.
In that game, quarterback Rudy Carpenter was sacked four times and completed just 9-of-27 passes with two interceptions. The Beavers' defense was stellar, and they return nine starters including the Pac-10 leading returning tackler, senior weakside linebacker Joey LaRocoque and the team's second-leading tackler, senior strong side linebacker Derrick Doggett.
Oregon State also returns its top three leaders in sacks from last season. Senior left end Dorian Smith, had nine sacks, senior middle linebacker Alan Darlin had 5.5 sacks and Doggett had five sacks. Doggett led the team with 14.5 tackles for loss, Darlin had 12.5 stops for loss, Smith had 11.5 tackles for loss and returning senior right end Jeff Van Orsow had 10 tackles for loss. Those four players alone have more tackles for loss and all of Arizona State's returning players combined.
Through three games this season, junior free safety Al Afalava leads the team with 19 tackles, including one sack, and he also leads the team with three pass deflections. Senior strong safety Daniel Drayton is second with 18 tackles and Laroque and Doggett have 14 apiece. Junior defensive end Slade Norris has moved up from linebacker, and had an impact, leading the team with 3.5 sacks.
ASU coach Dennis Erickson said that the Beavers' defense is quite a bit like the one Carpenter plays against every day in practice. Both the Sun Devils and Beavers utilize a lot of "Cover 8" looks (free safety at eight yards over the tight end with corners at playing off and slightly inside), so Carpenter should be able to effect success against this style of defense.
The real issue here for ASU is that the Beavers are probably a little more athletic at the point of attack and their secondary has proven itself relatively consistent on deep and intermediate routes over a longer period than the Sun Devils have. They also have a proven blitz methodology that has been successful with the players already in place, due in part to an excellent linebacker corps.
We can expect the Sun Devils to try to exploit the Beavers with a lot of swing passes and quick hitting strikes early on, working in conjunction with a strong emphasis to establish the run behind Ryan Torain, who appears to be fully healthy after sitting out the San Diego State game due to an ankle injury.
This, however, is no easy task. The Beavers shut down Utah's ground game in the season opener, allowing just 18 net rushing yards, and followed that up by giving up just 30 net rushing yards to Cincinnati. Oregon State lost that game 34-3, but that was primarily because its quarterback threw six interceptions, three each by starter Sean Canfield and backup Lyle Moevao. The Bearcats were able to capitalize on a short field due to turnovers for three scores, and also blocked a punt and returned it 1 yard for another score. In its third game, Oregon State gave up just 36 yards on the ground.
Overall, the Beavers are second in the Pac-10 in scoring defense at 17.0 points per game (behind ASU's 10 points per game), and their defense is first in the conference and second in the nation, yielding just 27.7 yards per game and 0.9 yards per attempt.
In other words, we're going to see just how capable ASU is in terms of its running game, with all of its veteran offensive line and stable of running backs healthy, particularly when factoring in Erickson's determination to establish the run. The Sun Devils are second in the Pac-10 in rushing attempts, with 137 in three games, and are first in the Pac-10 and second in the nation with an average of 34 minutes per game in time of possession.
Considering how well ASU has played on defense, however, this could prove to shape up to be a low scoring affair. This, even though the Beavers feature one of the nation's most highly regarded running backs, 5-foot-9 senior Yvenson Bernard and one of the top wideouts/return specialists, 6-foot, 193 pound senior Sammie Stroughter.
Bernard has 249 yards on 59 carries (4.2 yards per carry) in three games, with three touchdowns. He's also the team's leading receiver, with 12 catches out of the backfield for 49 yards. He has yet to explode for a huge game, and will be the best back ASU has faced to this point in the season.
Stroughter got off somewhat of a slow start after missing much of fall camp while mourning the loss of several family members and a coach responsible for recruiting him to Oregon State. At his best, he's one of the top return men in the game, a second-team All-Pac-10 and third-team All-American in 2006. His 74 receptions and 1,293 receiving yards both ranked among the top five in a season all-time at the school. Last weekend he had 160 yards and two touchdowns in a 61-10 throttling of outmatched Idaho State.
Oregon State also returns veteran starting receivers Brandon Powers and Anthony Brown[/db], along with four of five starting offensive linemen. The major losses from last season are at quarterback, where Matt Moore had a very good senior season, and tight end, where Joe Newton was one of the league's best.
Offensively for the Beavers, this game probably comes down to its sophomore signal caller, Sean Canfield. As mentioned, he had three interceptions in his first road start, at Cincinnati. A 6-foot-4 southpaw, Canfield has very good mobility and a lot of potential, but it's largely unrealized to this point. He's never led his team to any win on the road, much less in a Pac-10 game, in a city where the Beavers haven't won a game since 1969.
Expect the Sun Devils to try to stop Bernard and the running attack of the Beavers, and then force Canfield to beat them via the pass.
Special teams also may play a major role in this game. The Beavers have done a reasonable job on kick and punt coverage thus far, but their real strength is with Stroughter as punt returner, and with senior Alex Serna, one of the top place-kickers in college football. Serna has more made field goals than any active player in the NCAA.
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