Oregon St. (0-3, 0-1) visits #25 Arizona St. (3-1, 1-0) tonight in an edition of the "Erickson Bowl" that resonates less with most of the College Football world than any of the previous meetings between Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson and Mike Riley, who both preceded and followed Erickson in Corvallis.
Despite all the opportunities for animosity the curious circumstances of the coaches' recent careers created, the mutual respect and friendship between the two very experienced and classy coaches tends to give the games more a feeling of a family reunion. At least until game time. Recent years have produced a bench clearing brawl, the end to the Beavers' 40 year drought in the desert, and couple of very close and exciting games, including last years' 31-28 Oregon St. win.
The Beavers have won 3 in a row, and 4 of 5, but tonight, the Sun Devils are 18 point favorites to get Erickson his second win against Riley.
Despite the apparent differences in direction the programs are headed in, its a pretty big game for both teams.
Oregon St. is a couple of plays away from being 2-1, which would be Riley's best ever record heading into October, and the media buzz nationally would be about the great job Riley had done with one of the youngest teams in the country. But those plays didn't happen as they should, and the Beavers are off to their worst start since the Pettibone debacle. It's a reminder of just how fragile and small the margin is at this level between being a good team and a real bad one.
Instead, Oregon St. has lost 5 in a row for the first time since Riley's first year as coach, and 7 of their last 8. The team is still young, and injury plagued. A particularly bad combination in the "I feel sorry for you, but I have my own job to worry about" world of college football. The Beavers still have an offense that doesn't produce in the red zone (2 TD in only 8 trips), and a defense that doesn't either (opponents have driven into the red zone 14 times, and on into the end zone on 12 of those trips).
While a win would be huge, its also unlikely in the heat of the desert against one of the fastest defenses and an up and coming offense led by Brock Osweiler. Nevertheless, the Beavers need to play well, and demonstrate to themselves, not to mention, well, everyone else, that they have already hit bottom, and are on the way back, and that they are not continuing to slide back into the dark ages. Proving they can run the ball against an FBS opponent, and without Malcolm Agnew, would help too.
Arizona St. exorcised a demon in defeating USC for the first time after 11 consecutive losses last week, demolishing the Trojans 43-22. Next up is an Oregon St. team the current Sun Devil players have never beaten.
But more than that, Arizona St. needs to demonstrate that they are capable of consistently playing to their potential. In a year that most of the country perceives the Pac-12 as a weak 2 horse race between Oregon and Stanford, the Sun Devils are still working on earning respect. A loss at Illinois was no help in that regard, though the Illini are off to their best start in 60 years. In part, that's why Arizona St. suffered more perception wise than Illinois benefited.
An upcoming tough trip to Utah is in the offing as well, so the Sun Devils need to turn in a carbon copy of last week's beat down of USC. Vontaze Burfict and Shelly Lyons both had key interceptions, and Arizona St. also forced two Trojan fumbles. Look for that to happen to Oregon St. quarterback Sean Mannion in only his second start as well. Meanwhile Osweiler and company didn't turn the ball over at all.
The result this week will take a while to develop, and I look for big plays from both squad's special teams. But in the end, the result will be about as close as can be to last week's in Tempe; Arizona St. 41 Oregon St. 24.
Needless to say, I have very low expectations for this game. With the way our defensive backs, and our whole defense in general, have played, I don't see how they can stop Brock Osweiler and ASU's offense.
But, for some reason, I actually have a good feeling about this game. I don't think we will win, but our offense should put up enough points to at least hang with the Sun Devils.
After falling behind 10-0 after the first quarter, Sean Mannion settles down and begins completing completing some passes to James Rodgers and Markus Wheaton. This finally opens up the run game for Oregon State, and Terran Ward and Jovan Stevenson take advantage of it. Ward breaks off a 25-yarder to cut the Devil lead to 10-7, and Stevenson takes the ball across the goal line on the next drive to give Oregon State a surprising 14-10 lead at the half.
Unfortunately though, the third quarter ends up a lot like the first. A pair of Arizona State field goals and a touchdown later, the crowd is back into it, and ASU leads 23-14. The defenses take over in the fourth, with the Beavers finally scoring a touchdown with just a minute left to cut the deficit to two. The onside kick is recovered by the Sun Devils though, and Oregon State drops to 0-4 on the year.
Prediction: Arizona State 23, Oregon State 21
Here we are. At a point I did not expect, or hope for, in the season with the team looking at going 0 and 4.
What does this game mean in the grand scheme of things? I'm not sure. I think at the least this team needs to be competitive and by this I mean keeping the game close at all times and executing stuff like better red-zone production, or finding that running game again, even without Agnew. Or opening up the passing playbook. Or finding an aggressive pass rush. Or hopefully a combination of all these.
A win in the desert is going to be tough, and would be a bonus for sure in a game no one is expecting the Beavs to win. But the "silver lining" view I'm taking right now is that I see this really more about the team coming out and playing like a team and with some spark.
Some have completely given up on the team this season, and many like me have serious concerns/doubts, and I want to see a team out to prove us all wrong, and out to prove they still believe in the season. The team may not win this game, and I am not betting anything on this game on behalf of the Beavs. But they can take some really positive steps forward or obviously they can continue the path downwards. And maybe the Riley October magic can take hold again?
BTD will be back after the game to break the results down. Go Beavs!
BTD will be back after the game to break the results down.