October 24, 2008

Oregon preview

In the mind of the Arizona State football team, its "new season" begins Saturday.

The Sun Devils want to forget about the 2-4 record they posted in their first six games.

They want to get rid of the sting they suffered when USC shut them out for the first time since 2004.

They want to look like the team that won 10 games in 2007.

Quarterback Rudy Carpenter said early in the week that this team could still potentially finish the year with nine wins, and technically it is possible.

But it won't be easy.

This is the same group that has lost four consecutive games.

The players and coaches say their confidence has not been shaken, but they are about to face an Oregon team that has beat ASU the past three times they faced each other.

But the Sun Devils don't see those facts as a reason to panic. They have bought into the "new season" philosophy and are as inspired as ever.

"You combine [losing three straight to Oregon] and the fact that we're on a four-game losing streak," linebacker Mike Nixon said, "if you can't find motivation in those two things then you're going to have trouble finding it at all."

And the players not only say they are motivated, they have looked motivated too.

ASU has had two good weeks of practice since its last game.

The offense, which has struggled lately, looked particularly good last week with Carpenter (ankle) and wide receiver Chris McGaha (toe) both close to 100-percent.

But Coach Dennis Erickson said even with those two near full strength, it all comes down to "making plays" on offense.

The Sun Devils want to emulate the 41-point performance they had against Stanford, not their shut out loss to USC.

"We need to start making plays," Erickson said. "I went back through every game that we've played this year with a fine-toothed comb to see, how did we score so many points against Stanford, who is a pretty good football team, and not against [another] team?

"To me, it's just a matter of making plays and execution, protecting a little bit better, establishing some kind of run. We've done that at times but haven't been very consistent."

Running back Keegan Herring will get his first start of the season Saturday, which could help a rushing attack ranked last in the Pac-10.

Herring has been battling a nagging hamstring injury all season, but Erickson said Thursday the senior is as healthy as he has been all year.

Herring, the active Pac-10 leading rusher, has only played in three games this season and has compiled 131 rushing yards along with two touchdowns.

Defensively, the Sun Devils have played extremely well in their past two games and are hoping to continue the trend.

The only change to the defense will be at strong safety where Rodney Cox will start in place of the injured Clint Floyd.

Cox started the first four games of the season before Floyd won the starting spot. However, Floyd suffered a lacerated kidney against USC and will not suit up Saturday.

When ASU faced Oregon last season, it was one of the biggest games of the year in the Pac-10.

Both teams were ranked in the top-10 and the winner seemingly had the inside track to the Rose Bowl.

Saturday's game in Tempe is not nearly as big, but the Sun Devils know how bad they need a win.

"We need to get back on track," defensive end James Brooks said. "We're sick of losing and getting a win against Oregon would put us back where we need to be.

"We have to have this one."

About Oregon

Head Coach: Mike Bellotti (14th season)

2007 season: 9-4

2008 record: 5-2 (3-1 Pac-10)


Over the past several years, the two things that have seemingly given the ASU defense the most problems are mobile quarterbacks and the spread offense.

Oregon has both.

While the Ducks don't have quarterback Dennis Dixon who torched ASU on the ground and in the air last season, they do have Jeremiah Masoli who is dual-threat as well.

Nixon knows how much ASU has struggled against this type of quarterback and system, but he is confident the Sun Devils have improved enough to keep Masoli and Oregon in check.

"Playing some of those teams earlier in the year kind of got us prepared for [the spread]," Nixon said. "Especially a UNLV-type and even NAU, they spread us out. We have a lot of experience against the spread the last couple of years and we just have to go out and play solid football and tackle well."

Masoli is averaging more than 40 rushing yards per game, but he is just part of the Ducks' high-powered rushing attack.

Oregon has the top-ranked ground game in the conference at 275.1 yards per game.

Oregon lost star running back Jonathan Stewart to the NFL, but it still has LeGarrette Blount who is averaging nearly 85 yards per game and Jeremiah Johnson who averages 73.6 yards per contest.

Through the air, Oregon is only averaging 190.9 yards per game, but it does have 11 touchdown passes on the season, three more than ASU.

The Ducks' don't have a top-10 receiver in the Pac-10 statistically, but they do have three players, wide receivers Terence Scott and Jaison Williams and tight end Ed Dickson, who average more than 40 receiving yards per game.

Oregon's offensive line has only allowed 11 sacks in seven games.

"They're tough up front but we've played really well lately," defensive tackle David Smith said. "It'll be a battle all game."



That is the word that best defines the Oregon defense.

"They have about eight or nine guys that have played forever it seems like, since I was at Oregon State," Erickson joked. "They're a good defense. They've been solid against everybody. They don't make a lot of mistakes. They run around to the football.

"Probably more than anything it's an experienced group that has won a lot of games."

Oregon's pass defense is ranked ninth in the conference, but Erickson said that number misrepresents how good the Ducks really are against the pass.

"[Oregon] has scored so many points early, they got so far ahead, that people ended up having to throw the ball," he said. "So sometimes those things are a little misleading."

Along its defensive front, the Ducks start three seniors and one junior, and the strength up front is at the defensive end position.

Starting defensive ends Will Tukuafu and Nick Reed have combined for 14 sacks this season, with Reed recording at least one sack in each of the Ducks' last six games.

Perhaps the best defensive player for Oregon is Patrick Chung, who Carpenter called "one of the better players in the Pac-10."

The senior rover has 46 tackles and one sack on the year. In three games against ASU, Chung has recorded 27 tackles.

Both cornerbacks, Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond III, are returning starters as well.

Byrd has three interceptions in 2008 while Thurmond has picked off two passes this year.

The Ducks' top tackler is free safety T.J. Ward.

Oregon's linebacking corps is composed of Casey Matthews in the middle, Jerome Boyd on the strong side and Spencer Paysinger on the weak side. Those three have totaled more than 100 tackles and five sacks this season.

ASU vs. Oregon

Saturday will mark the 29th time ASU has faced Oregon with the Sun Devils holding the all-time series lead 16-12.

However, ASU is 7-12 against the Ducks since 1988.

ASU is 8-5 against Oregon in Sun Devil Stadium, but Oregon has won the last three contests between the two teams, including the last two in Tempe.

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