(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
Although the big picture implications surrounding Arizona State’s matchup with Oregon have shrunk dramatically over the course of the season, the talent on the field will be much higher than two 4-3 records represent.
While ASU has done well slowing down opposing rushing attacks this season, Oregon boasts sophomore running back Royce Freeman, who ranks seventh in the country in rushing. As a team, Oregon is sixth in the country and first in the Pac-12.
Statistically, this will be the strongest ground game ASU has seen this season and yet another test for a rushing defense that ranks second in the conference.
Additionally, Oregon redshirt senior quarterback Vernon Adams seems to finally be at full strength after suffering a broken finger in the Ducks’ opener, when he went 14-for-25, 272 yards and two touchdowns in Oregon’s most recent game against Washington. He also displayed his keen ability to extend plays with his legs, as he did during his time at Eastern Washington.
“Assignments are huge every week, but especially when you’re playing a quarterback who can run,” sophomore linebacker Christian Sam said. “You have to always be accountable for him… That’s double trouble.”
Sam has broken out this season at WILL linebacker, and he currently ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in total tackles with 54, far eclipsing his tally of 16 last season.
Freshman defensive end JoJo Wicker will also be key in keeping Adams from breaking contain. Wicker has continuously improved over the season, assisting on two tackles for loss against No. 3 Utah.
“He’s (Adams) small, so we just got to get pressure on him,” Wicker said.
Wicker seems to have solidified his position at five-technique, and the amount of playing time he has seen has him feeling a bit more ready than a normal true freshman.
“I know what to do. I know all the techniques now,” Wicker said. “I just have to do it… Sometimes you can forget it during the game or during practice, and we have new stuff added like every week. It changes around.”
This won’t be the first time ASU faces a multi-headed rushing attack, and Graham said during his presser on Monday that Freeman displays the same patience as UCLA redshirt junior Paul Perkins. In ASU’s win over UCLA, the Sun Devils held Perkins to just 63 yards on 18 carries, and the defense expects to do the same on Thursday night.
“I think Oregon’s running back (Freeman) is a little more physical,” Sam said. “(Perkins) is a good back. I think the running back for Oregon is a little more physical and he’s bigger. He wants to get it north-south right now.”
Freeman posted a 144-yard performance against Washington, averages 5.1 yards per carry, and has shown time and again his ability to break for big plays if the defense doesn’t stay disciplined. After holding Utah’s Devontae Booker in check for three quarters, ASU’s defense has reason to believe it can do the same against Freeman, but the fourth quarter collapse that allowed Booker to find the end zone twice is also a reason for concern.
“They’re both kind of big and downhill running backs,” Wicker said. “Very patient and fast and not not easy to tackle. I feel like they’re very similar.”
Prepared for Oregon’s tempo
The Ducks rank 13th in the country in offensive plays per game with 80.8. While tempo has been a signature for Oregon over the better part of the last decade, the Sun Devils feel that playing against their own offense every day will help immensely. Currently, ASU is 17th in plays per game with 79.6.
“We run tempo like every week in practice, so I feel like we’ll be good for it,” Wicker said. “We run a lot. It’s whatever. We just got to stop them, period, so they can’t do that.”
While Oregon hasn’t quite reached the same offensive heights without Marcus Mariota at the helm, the tempo has been something that has been similar from year-to-year and something that is almost unique to the Ducks.
“I’ve never played Oregon, but I’ve seen them on TV,” Sam said. “I’ve seen the tempo, and I don’t know if you can really simulate that.”
With both teams still trying to find their traction in the 2015 season, this game holds more survival implications than championship ones, and Sam is well aware of that.
“We can’t lose another game,” Sam said. “We know that. We can’t let that pressure get to us.”
– Sophomore safety Armand Perry was in a green no-contact jersey on Tuesday but went through stretching today. Last week, Graham said he is “50/50 or better” to play Oregon.
– Freshman quarterback Brady White was in green as well on Tuesday.
– Sophomore running back Demario Richard was fully dressed and is expected to be 100 percent against Oregon.
You can reach Zac Pacleb on Twitter @ZacPacleb or via email at email@example.com