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The beginning of Pac-12 play can represent a new page of the season, and on Saturday night in Tempe the Sun Devils will aim to begin that chapter of their 2017 campaign on a much better note that the non-conference portion of their season ended. The Ducks on the other hand would like to view their matchup with ASU as continued momentum following a 3-0 start. Our Joe Healey examines ASU’s Pac-12 play opening opponent, detailing their strengths and weaknesses.
Now the unquestioned starting quarterback for the Ducks, when ASU and Oregon met last year quarterback Justin Herbert was a true freshman in the very early stages of his career but posted a record-setting day that helped cement him into his current role.
In that game, Herbert, making his third career start, broke the Oregon school single-game total offense mark and tied the single-game passing record, throwing for 489 yards and totaling 512 yards of total offense.
For the season in 2016, Herbert threw for 1,936 yards with 19 touchdowns and four interceptions while completing 63.5% of his passes and through three games in 2017, the sophomore has thrown for 897 yards with five touchdowns and two picks at a completion rate of 72.3%.
Helping to guide Oregon to a 3-0 record and a No. 24 poll ranking entering this week, Herbert has thrown for 281, 365 and 251 yards in Oregon’s first three games while also rushing for 73 net yards with a touchdown.
Though he is still growing as a performer, Herbert’s development has been boosted by an improving offensive line and a host of skill players including both proven veterans and impressive players new to their starting roles.
A legitimate Heisman hopeful entering the 2016 season after rushing for more than 3,200 yards across his freshman and sophomore seasons, like the Ducks as a team, Royce Freeman was banged up and dinged up in 2016 and had a substantial setback season.
Last year, Freeman rushed for 945 yards on 168 carries with nine touchdowns – excellent by normal standards, but Freeman, legitimately one of the most talented rushers in recent college football history, is no normal athlete. Freeman appeared in all but one game last year, but had five of 11 games with 15 carries or fewer as his physical limitations held him back from playing to his other-worldly capabilities.
So far in 2017, Freeman has proven to be completely back to his true form as he has exploded out of the gates with 460 yards on 82 carries with nine touchdowns, adding 109 yards on six receptions. His efforts have been incredibly consistent as well as he has rushed for 150, 153 and 157 yards in the first three games while carrying the ball between 23-30 times through the first three weeks.
Entering this weekend, Freeman leads the nation in rushing touchdowns and ranks third nationally in rushing yards behind a few familiar names in national leader Rashaad Penny of San Diego State and Stanford’s Bryce Love. Freeman also leads the Pac-12 and ranks fourth nationally in all-purpose yards at 189.7 per game (569 yards).
The NCAA’s active career leading rusher with 4,606 yards entering Saturday, Freeman ranks 44th all-time among FBS rushers. He is well on his way to becoming just the 22nd player to rush for more than 5,000 career yards and stands a legitimate chance of finishing his career inside the top-10 of FBS career rushers.
In terms of individual accolades, as a sophomore Freeman was a Second-Team All-American and First-Team All-Pac-12 pick after being named the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year and a Second-Team All-Pac-12 selection in 2014. Despite his limitations in 2016, Freeman was named an Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 pick.
Freeman had just 38 yards on 17 carries with a touchdown last year against ASU, but had 110 yards on 15 carries with two scores in Tempe in 2015.
As usual, Oregon is far from just a one-trick pony in terms of its rushing depth as Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James bring immense talent to the field as well.
A Phoenix native, Benoit has enjoyed an excellent start to the season with a sensational 10.0 yards per carry average as he’s rushed for 160 yards on 16 carries with six touchdowns. Brooks-James has had a slow start to the 2017 season with just 56 yards on 25 carries, but ran for 771 yards last year including a career-best 132 on just nine carries with a touchdown against ASU.
Freeman and Benoit give Oregon the nation’s most potent one-two punch in terms of points scored, as Freeman leads the FBS in rushing touchdowns and Benoit is in a three-way tie for second.
In a group that lost the vast majority of its production from a year ago, Charles Nelson returns as the top receiving target for the Ducks and has excelled in three games. Thus far, Nelson has caught 15 passes for 243 yards with one touchdown.
Also starting at receiver are true freshman Johnny Johnson III, a Chandler native, who has posted 10 receptions for 172 yards while sophomore Dillon Mitchell has 13 receptions for 156 yards with one score. Brenden Schooler has moved from defense to offense and has five catches for 53 yards and a touchdown.
Tight end Jacob Breeland looks to fill the First-Team All-Pac-12 shoes of Pharaoh Brown from last season and thus far has been generally productive with five catches for 75 yards with a touchdown.
A youthful line last year, Oregon’s front has shown improvement this year aided by the return of standout left tackle Tyrell Crosby, who missed all but two games last year.
Crosby is joined by Shane Lemieux at left guard, Jake Hanson at center, Jake Pisarcik at right guard and Calvin Throckmorton at right tackle. Lemieux, Hanson and Throckmorton are just sophomores and last year, both Hanson and Throckmorton were chosen as Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 members.
Through three games, Oregon is showing major glimpses of its former self as the Ducks rank second nationally at 609.0 yards of total offense per game and lead the nation with 23 total touchdowns. Oregon also ranks third nationally in scoring offense at 56.0 points per game, an impressive feat considering neither of the top two teams have played three games as has Oregon. In all, the Ducks’ 168 total points scored are the most by any FBS team – six more than high-power Oklahoma State.
On the ground, Oregon ranks 12th nationally with 285.3 rushing yards per game and is the clear leader with 18 rushing touchdowns as Clemson ranks second with 12 and only three other programs are in double figures for rushing touchdowns.
The Duck offense has been tremendously balanced in the early stretch of the season as Oregon ranks 18th nationally with 323.7 passing yards per game.
Oregon figures to feature Freeman early and often – a fearsome proposition considering the damage done by San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny two weeks ago. Also, Herbert last year proved the impact he can make and he has some intriguing passing prospects in Nelson, Johnson, Mitchell and company.
Nick Lucero / Rivals.com
The Oregon defense now features a three-man front under new coordinator Jim Leavitt, with ends Henry Mondeaux and Phoenix native Jalen Jelks around true freshman nose guard Austin Faoliu.
Mondeaux has recorded seven tackles including a sack, Jelks has nine tackles and Faoliu has registered a pair of tackles in 2017.
Justin Hollins starts at outside linebacker, standout Troy Dye at Jack linebacker, Kaulana Apelu at Mike and La’Mar Winston, Jr. at the Duck position.
An Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 selection last year, Dye is the team’s leading tackler with 25 total stops including 4.5 for loss with 2.0 sacks and one interception. Hollins ranks second on the squad with 15 tackles including 3.5 for loss with 1.0 sack. Apelu isn’t far behind as the team’s third-leading tackler with 14 total tackles, while Winston has eight stops including 1.5 for loss through three games.
Jonah Moi has also started two games at outside linebacker and leads the team with 3.0 quarterback sacks.
In the secondary, Ugochukwu Amadi is joined by true freshman Thomas Graham, Jr. at cornerback with Tyree Robinson paired with Nick Pickett, also a true freshman, at safety.
The cornerback pair has proven to make plays through three games as both Amadi and Graham have two interceptions on the year. Graham also has 14 tackles while Amadi has nine tackles including a sack.
Robinson has posted five tackles and an interception while Pickett has six total tackles on the year.
Cornerback Arrion Springs and safety Matrell McGraw have also seen ample action, with Springs having posted 11 tackles including 1.0 sack and McGraw has nine total tackles this season.
Last season, Oregon had one of the poorest defenses in the nation as only California and Texas Tech allowed more than the 41.4 points per game given up by the Ducks, while only ASU and Texas Tech surrendered more than the 518.4 total yards allowed by Oregon in 2016.
Through three games, noticeable improvements have surfaced as Oregon ranks 59th nationally allowing 23.0 yards per game and ranks 33rd in the nation in total defense by allowing 303.0 total yards per game. The Ducks rank 31st nationally in rush defense (108.3 yards per game) and 44th in pass defense (194.7 yards per game) and ties for 21st nationally with nine sacks in three games.
Oregon Special Teams
A Third-Team All-American and First-Team All-Pac-12 pick in 2015, Aidan Schneider returns for his senior season with the Ducks. This season, Schneider has missed his only field goal attempt.
True freshman Adam Stack assumes punting duties for the Ducks and averages 35.4 yards on 10 punts thus far.
In the return game, Oregon features a pair of potentially devastating returns specialists in Charles Nelson and Tony Brooks-James.
Nelson had a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against ASU in 2015 and last season, Brooks-James was a Second-Team All-Pac-12 pick as an all-purpose/special teams player and Nelson was an Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 pick as a return specialist.
So far in 2017, Nelson averages 4.3 yards on six punt returns, while Brooks-James averages 34.4 yards on five kick returns with a 100-yard touchdown return already to his credit.
Oregon brings undeniable offensive potency and what appears to be an improved defense to Sun Devil Stadium, so to combat the Ducks the Devils will have to bring the same.
The million dollar question for Sun Devil supporters is whether the offense that was showed in the second half last week is the rule or the exception for how Arizona State will perform moving forward in 2017.
A win would do wonders for ASU in a number of ways – not the least of which is that should the Sun Devils lose, they then would be 1-9 in the past 10 games. The most recent time that Arizona State won one or fewer games during any 10-game span was its 0-9-1 stretch across the 1937-38 seasons.
Also, defeating the Ducks would eject a sizeable monkey off ASU’s back as the Devils have dropped 10 straight matchups with Oregon dating back to ASU’s last win in 2004. In games among Pac-12 teams, only California’s 12-game streak to USC that dates back to Cal’s most recent win in 2003 is longer.
Keys to a Sun Devil Victory
Maintain Momentum on Offense: For seemingly the first time in 2017 – and perhaps the first time in quite a while, dating back to the 2016 season – ASU showed major life on offense against Texas Tech last week. The argument can be made that ASU was aided by a Texas Tech defense that has recently been among the worst at the FBS level, but nevertheless, a distinct pulse was felt last Saturday. If ASU can continue that sort of momentum, the Sun Devils stand a chance to be competitive in several games on the upcoming Pac-12 slate. However, if that effort proves to be an anomaly similar to last year’s 68-point outburst against the Red Raiders, the Devils will be largely disadvantaged in coming weeks.
Don’t Let Freeman Run Free: There is no doubt about the fact that through three games, Royce Freeman is back to his old self and playing some of the best football of his collegiate career. With memories of San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny running circles around the Sun Devils still fresh in our collective minds, ASU can ill afford to let any of the Oregon rushers – a list topped by but not limited to Freeman – to run wild in Tempe on Saturday.
No Déjà Vu for Herbert: As is well known, last year Herbert absolutely torched ASU and to date, in 2017 the Sun Devil defense hasn’t shown dramatic improvements. With improved health and swagger on the entire team, if Herbert is able to operate freely the results will be catastrophic for ASU. Making matters worse, ASU’s lone true sack specialist Koron Crump will not play Saturday, creating an even greater premium on trying to limit Herbert.
· Oregon RB Kani Benoit (Phoenix Thunderbird HS), WR Johnny Johnson III (Chandler HS) and DL Jalen Jelks (Phoenix Desert Vista HS) are all Arizona natives.
· Oregon DL Malik Young attended Eastern Arizona College
· ASU OL Connor Humphreys attended Portland (Ore.) Central Catholic HS, as did Oregon S Brady Breeze and LB La’Mar Winston, Jr.
· Oregon CB Thomas Graham, Jr. and WR Jaylon Redd attended Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) High School, as did ASU’s Alani Latu