(Photo: Jannah Din/WCSN)
The conference’s best passing attack comes to Tempe to battle Arizona State on Saturday night. The Oregon State Beavers suddenly look like a Mike Leach-coached team, all but abandoning the running game that made them so good just a few years ago.
Instead, the Sun Devils will face receiver Brandin Cooks, who sits either first or second in every major receiving category nationally. Quarterback Sean Mannion has developed into a gunslinger as well, tossing the ball to Cooks at will. The dynamic duo has been opening up big play opportunities since the start of the year.
Those big plays will be key for the Sun Devils on Saturday night. Limit them, win the game. Give up a few, and this one gets interesting.
Arizona State win if: They just play a normal home game. The Sun Devils have scored at least more than 40 in all but three of Todd Graham’s games at Sun Devil Stadium. They’ve only lost at home once, to Oregon in 2012, since Graham and quarterback Taylor Kelly took over the reigns. Oregon State has a good passing attack, but it’s one-dimensional and the defense isn’t great. Stanford and USC dominated the Beavers in back-to-back weeks in Corvallis. If the Sun Devils don’t pull away in this one, I’d be concerned.
Arizona State is in trouble if: Speaking of being concerned, the Sun Devils have to pressure Mannion. The reason USC and Stanford both had so much success was because of constant pressure on the quarterback. But when Mannion has had time to sit back and throw the ball, he’s been lethal, and so has Cooks. The Beavers will force the ball to Cooks all day long, but that will lead to interceptions if Mannion is being hit while releasing. The Sun Devils have done a great job of winning in the trenches, especially on defense, during its four-game winning streak. If they can’t win the battle on defense, though, this game could be a shootout.
Arizona State loses if: Oregon State completely out-coaches Arizona State. That’s actually a possibility. Mike Reilly is a brilliant mind and has always adapted his teams. The Beavers had a week off to prepare for the Sun Devils and you have to imagine Reilly has learned a thing or two from the disappointing losses. If Oregon State comes out and pounds the rock, especially if they do it successfully, or can shut down Arizona State’s read-option game by attacking the mesh point, Oregon State could stun the Devils.
Prediction: Arizona State wins, 54-24. In the end, the Sun Devils are just too talented and too explosive at home. Taylor Kelly would be a Heisman contender if he played 12 home games, and the defense has a more aggressive look at home as well. I could see this game going a lot like the Washington game, with a few slow drives for both teams to start, followed by the Sun Devils blowing it open in the second.