13th ranked Oregon St. takes on Arizona St. tonight, and after an upsetting upset loss last week in soggy Seattle, a solid season or a stumbling one hinges on whether the Beavers can exorcise the Sun Devils in the dark.
The stakes are similar for Arizona St., who opened the season with a 5-1 run, only to lose the last 2 weeks in a row, once the toughness of the schedule ramped up.
Before last year's 35-20 comeback win in Tempe, Arizona St. has lost 3 in a row against Oregon St., and 4 of 5, as the Sun Devils have also lost each of their last 3 trips to Corvallis. But there's little linking either team to much of that history, especially with new Arizona St. head coach Todd Graham having overhauled the system and the roster.
Between the emergence of Arizona St.'s Taylor Kelly as one of the best young quarterbacks in the Pac-12, and the third change in starting quarterback for the Beavers in 4 weeks, most of the conversation has been about the offenses, and the most people's keys to the game seem to boil down to how many points its going to take to win this game.
It's been easy to forget that these are top 2 defenses in the conference, statistically. And with injuries to the Sun Devil's Will Sutton and the Beavers' Jordan Poyer possibly hampering both those players and the overall level of performance of their respective squads, it might not be the defensive battle it could have been. But for better or worse, I expect it will be the defenses that decide this one, not the offenses.
Oregon St. coach Mike Riley opted to go with Cody Vaz at quarterback in significant part because of his ball security, but his mobility, which has minimized both the frequency and size of loss of sacks, is a factor as well, especially with Sutton bearing down.
Sutton leads the country in sacks despite missing essentially 2 entire games, with a half sack more than Oregon St.'s Scott Crichton. Vaz's ability to evade Sutton and Crichton's success in getting to Kelly, who has already gone down 19 times this season, are going to be key stats to track.
Poyer being hampered or absent has the potential to be a game changer, though. Poyer leads Oregon St. in interceptions, but his heady play, as well as his contributions on special teams, are much more important. If Poyer finds his way onto the field, he can be a game changer. How well the rest of the Oregon St. secondary plays is the other key to watch for.
Fortunately for the Beavers, their defense has been MUCH stronger at home, on a consistent basis, this season. They have only allowed 20 points. That's been the low game total this season for the Sun Devils, who are 22nd in the country in scoring. Something's got to give, and I'd feel much better with a fully healthy Poyer.
With or without a fully functional Poyer, this game, and the Arizona St. spread read-option and short passing game, with about as many passes to backs as wide outs, and lots of hitch routes and screens, Oregon St. Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker and secondary coach Rod Perry have some options, and also some real decisions to make, as far as how to defend.
For example, the Sun Devils are susceptible to blitzes, yet their system is perfect for taking advantage if the blitz doesn't get home. And is Oregon St. better served to be aggressive, with a relatively small threat of the deep ball to contend with, or should they play a bend but don't break style, forcing Arizona St. to execute time and again because of the shortage of home run threats?
Time and again this year, the Oregon St. defense, and the worth of the addition of Perry, have proven themselves. I'm looking for that to happen again.
Beaver Believer Believes:
It's an interesting matchup for the Beavs, and with Poyer potentially dinged up we might not see as much of the dime and nickel packages, which may be tough against the offense of ASU.
BB12's Keys to the Game:
1. No hangover. The Beavs played poorly last week; I think we can all agree on that. Well at least the offense did. The Sun Devils are not a bad team by any means, so the Beavs cannot afford a bad start.
2. Protect the quarterback. With Arizona State getting backing some players from injury, especially Sutton, the Sun Devils will be ready and rearing to go. The Beavs need to protect Vaz, and if he can get the passing game going, hopefully the running game will open up as well.
3. Improve the playcalling. After the great start to the season, things have bogged down lately. Riley needs to get back to some of the creative playcalling that helped the Beavs start off so strong. The Beavers have become predictable over the last couple games, and it has slowed the offense down. There needs to be more variety, the offense is not nearly as good when it is vanilla and bland.
I think the Beavs come out upset after losing last week and with the crowd at their back I think they show up this week. 31-21 Beavs.
This is a huge game for the Beavers momentum. A loss to Arizona State likely means a loss against Stanford, and suddenly the magical season has come to a screeching halt. Fortunately, I think they avoid that fate and win a close one in front of the home crowd.
We know what to expect from Cody Vaz. He won't light the world on fire, but he won't burn down Reser Stadium either. We don't know what to expect from Storm Woods and the rushing attack. Against a pass defense as stingy as Arizona State's, gaining yards on the ground is absolutely essential. The Beavers haven't had a good run game the last three weeks, and it cost them dearly against the Huskies.
There is a key element of the Beaver offense which has gone missing since playing BYU. Brandin Cooks, where art thou? Vaz hardly targeted him at all against Utah, and wasn't involved early enough playing the Huskies, partially because of an injury in the latter game. Cooks needs to be involved. Fly sweeps, screens, anything. As they say, get the ball in your playmakers' hands.
The defense needs to stop Kelly and the ASU offense, which frequently uses the option. I don't know how doable that is, the defense struggled to stop BYU. The Beavers will be forced to use a QB spy, possibly Michael Doctor, which will help. I just don't know if it will help enough.
This won't be pretty, but they haven't been all year. The Beavs season, or at least their hopes for a great one, is on life support right now; any loss before the Civil War takes Oregon State out of a possible BCS bowl game. The Beavs can't afford to let off the gas for the rest of the year, and that starts now.
Last week, I placed the Beavs into a third stage of their football season, and labeled it as the stage that will define whether the season becomes a truly great one, or just a really good improvement over last year. The games I earmarked as part of this stage were the Washington, Arizona State, and Stanford games.
At this time, I do feel the season has been a success in relation to last year, but with the first loss of the season one does have a bit of feeling that this team is better than its now current record indicates. (Yes, I realize it is a bit funny to say that with a 6 and 1 record!).
I now believe that last Saturday's match up was not a good one for the Beavs to bring back Mannion in, and do have concerns about the last couple of games, and the offensive performance.
This all said, the Beavs still have time to get back on track (and thinking here back to the level of play we saw with the UCLA and Arizona wins), and what better way to do so but against a good ASU team and at one's own house? I really wanted the Mannion come back to be right back where he left off, but obviously he was not yet ready to come back to a full game level, and right now I do like Riley's decision to go back to Vaz.
Keys to the game I will be looking for:
1. Vaz and the offense to keep things hopping and wide open. We need more offense like we saw out of Vaz and Co. in the scoring drive against UW. I think this can still easily be done with limited or no playing time from Marcus Wheaton.
I was fairly impressed in the other receivers stepping it up when he went out last Saturday. I do not think it can be done though with limiting the touches Cooks gets. and as we all keep saying, we need to see the ball in his hands much more often. This offense looks bad when it puts up pretty decent numbers, and I am looking for it to put up big numbers this Saturday.
2. The defense needs to shut down the passing game with excellent coverage (Will Poyer play, and if not, how much a factor will this be?), and put more pressure on the QB. The defense has been very good all season long, but I do think a weaker point lately has been not putting a good amount of pressure on QBs.
3. Field position play has been pretty good all season long (much thanks to punter Keith Kostol), but I agree with some conversations I have had with Andy, we need to get a bit more out of the punt return game. If Poyer is out of this equation this weekend, ironically, it may end up being a nice change up for whoever they put back there.
It was disappointing that the team couldn't get to the historical mark of the best start ever in the program history during what I personally saw was a game where OSU looked to be the better and more athletic team on the field. UW came out fired up and desperate, and we fielded a QB not quite ready for the prime time. I expect this Saturday that ASU will be fired up for different reasons, in that they are in a similar place as OSU in competing for a top tier bowl possibility, and a successful season. At this halfway point of my designated third stage of the season, I also expect that the Beavs will be even more fired up, and taking their loss last week personally, giving the home crowd much to cheer about.