After losing 4 games in a row, and 5 out of the last 6, Oregon St. is faced with their biggest challenge yet this season, as #6 Arizona St. comes to Reser, for the final game in a 3 game home stand that Beaver Nation had hoped would be the springboard to a strong season.
But the Beavers are struggling in all phases of the game, while the Darkness Devils have played themselves squarely into the National Championship picture.
Arizona St. controls its own path to playing in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Pac-12 North Champion Oregon, and after pulling away for a 55-31 win over Notre Dame, the strength of the Pac-12 portion of their schedule all but ensures they will be one of the 4 College Football Playoff participants if they run the rest of the table. And that starts tomorrow night at Reser.
However, Reser is a place Arizona St. hasn't won at since 2005, and a cold and possibly wet night isn't tailor made for Taylor Kelly to lead the way to a solid outing against Oregon St.
Last year at this time in Tempe, the Sun Devils cruised to a 30-17 win in the dark, after opening 20 point leads in both halves.
That cold and uncomfortable weather just might make a difference, as the Arizona St. players have often looked like they just don't like it up here, and often in less inhospitable conditions than they will be in for this time.
But this is also an ASU team that now controls their own fate all the way to a National Championship, and that should result in more motivated Darkness Devils than we have seen this late in the season in some time.
If Jalen Grimble can return to action, and Jaswha James can return to early season form, the Oregon St. defense might just return to their early season form to a degree as well, and not let Kelly have the time to comfortably choose which weapon to use on most plays.
Whether its Jalen Strong or Cameron Smith catching passes, or D.J. Foster taking whatever he can get, on the ground or in the air, Kelly has good options in nearly any scenario, so the Beavers have got to get pressure on Kelly on a more consistent basis than they have in recent weeks.
No key drops by any receivers would help too. And PLEASE, no more unforced, non-talent based miscues, mismanaging time outs, play calls, and substitution and alignment packages!
The epidemic of these kinds of snafus have too often rendered what talent advantages Oregon St. does have irrelevant.
Also, NO TURNOVERS! And GET SOME TURNOVERS! The Oregon St. defense got zero interceptions the last 2 weeks, despite California's Jerad Goff and Washington St.'s Luke Falk combining to put the ball up in the air 108 times. Meanwhile, Arizona St. leads the country is scoring points off turnovers; if there's anything that's bound to change this game one way or another, it will be turnovers.
Last year, the Beavers looked unprepared for Arizona St.; that can't happen this time. If the Darkness Devils jump out to a 20 point lead again, or Sean Mannion starts throwing picks, like happened in Tempe, where he was picked off 4 times, the fans that haven't already decided to boycott night games or the current coaching staff are apt to head for the exits in droves early, which will defuse what has been a tremendous home field advantage, one the ASU folks are genuinely wary of.
Beaver Believer's Keys To The Game:
1. Stop the run game. DJ Foster is a very good back and the passing game is potent as well, but the Beavers at least need to attempt to make the Sun Devils one-dimensional. This will require the defensive line to man up, they have been poor since league play started with the exception of the Utah game. They cannot lose up front, they need to hold their gaps and let the linebackers flow to the ball. The linebackers also need to do their assignments as well and not over-aggressively get out of their zones. The front 7 need to play as a solid unit and not make any mistakes.
2. Vary the cornerback depth. The Beavers continually line up giving space to receivers and WSU took advantage of that by running quick screens into the space and short WR and RB screens out wide where they set up 3v2 situations and churned away yardage. The Beavers need to at least occasionally press and bump the receivers to mess up the timing, they can't always let them run free.
3. Score some points. Don't know how, but this needs to happen. The receivers need to create space, the line needs to protect Mannion, and he needs to make smart choices in the face of pressure. The entire offense needs to wake up and play mistake-free football, which they haven't done all year.
After last week's debacle I don't see how OSU can take down a top 10 team in ASU. The Sun Devils are strong on both sides of the ball and are playing much better fundamental football than the Beavers. It's going to be a long cold night. 40-17 Sun Devils.
This is a tough one. ASU is coming in on fire, and I have to admit I am impressed with their mix of winning games with both defense and offense. They are a well balanced team that is playing for a conference championship and a possible national playoff spot. I have under appreciated this Sun Devils team so far this season for sure, but they have my full attention now.
On the other side, we are well aware of the problems and frustration this OSU football program is putting out there with their season so far. Plainly this is not a good match up for the Beavs. As Andy has noted, there are some possible "bright" spots for this match up, so let's look at some of these possible keys:
Weather = The Beavs have had a home field advantage over the desert team since 2005, and the weather looks to be playing right into a nice cold if not wet NW evening and night. That said, this season's Sun Devils have proved they can win without much sun as they did against Washington in Seattle's swirling wind and rain. The pressure is building for ASU, and the stakes rising, will a case of the spotlight nerves mix with some cold and wind to the Beavs' advantage?
OSU's (semi) Healthy Defensive Line = As Andy noted in his earlier piece, Jalen Grimble will be back in this game, thus allowing for the front line to return a bit back to their normal positions. But will this make any difference if the offense still cannot help the defense out?
OSU's Offense = Again what it all seems to really come down to is if Oregon State can establish any momentum on offense. Can they control the clock with any type of rushing attack? Can Mannion work in bad weather enough to keep the very good and improving Sun Devils defense off balance? Will the Beavs offensive line be able to do just enough to open up just enough running lanes and give Mannion just enough time to pick the secondary apart?
Other? = In a game like this that could find weather a big factor in leveling out the playing field for Oregon State, will the Beavs get some breaks of their own making? Can they use the weather to force ASU turnovers? Will they be able to hold onto the ball on their side? The score could possibly stay low, and as such, the Beavs will need to play smart ball One has to think there will be some bad breaks and bad plays made in a tough conditions game, and as such the Beavs also need to greatly limit the mental miscues. These are the miscues totally of their making, and will not allow for any room to recover from other miscues that will be more out of their control. A key OSU turnover may well be overcome in the long-haul of the game IF the team does not compound it with six false start penalties (and so on).
In the end I am not personally envisioning a 'W' coming out of this game for the Beavs. They have not shown me anything of late to indicate they can make that happen, and Arizona State has shown me plenty that indicates that they can win the game. That said, even with the offensive line issues still being a huge hole to fill in this game, there are some possible elemental aspects to this game that is not going to make it a total cake walk for the sixth ranked Sun Devils. Indeed there is plenty of talent on this OSU team to be one of the more scary 1 and 5 conference teams to face at this crucial time of the season for ASU.
I think what is interesting here is that normally one would say what makes OSU dangerous in this game is they have nothing to lose, and the odds are stacked against them, etc. But I believe in reality what makes this Beavs team possibly more dangerous is that they do indeed have much to lose this game. They may be playing badly overall, but this is not a team, and a program that is going through the motions to get to the off-season. It is a season that finds a team vastly underachieving, and I believe now fighting for their way of program existence. Is it enough? It was not against Washington State last weekend, but the pieces are there I still believe. But in the end I have no idea when, how, or if, those pieces will come together.
It is a game with two teams, and two programs going in opposite directions, but there is a common ground here of both teams fighting hard for their futures. That in of itself makes this game worthy of interest and worthy of our Orange and Black fan support.