Arizona State is in for a challenge this week. The No. 3 Oregon Ducks bring not only a high powered offense, but a well rounded football team to Tempe for Thursday’s nationally televised contest. Everyone knows about Oregon’s offense and uniforms, but Rob Moseley, who covers the Oregon Ducks for the Register-Guard, recently talked with The State Press about what to expect Thursday night.
State Press: Coming off a bye week, Oregon can either come out flat and a bit rusty or incredibly prepared because of the extra time. How did the Ducks use the bye week and what do you expect out of the gates?
Moseley: The Ducks practiced twice last week, Tuesday and Thursday, but couldn’t get a lot done because all the assistant coaches were gone recruiting early in the week. They resumed practices Saturday, so (they) got in a normal five-day week of preparation for Thursday’s game.
Since Chip Kelly took over and instituted his “win the day” philosophy, the Ducks haven’t really had a letdown game, so I wouldn’t anticipate one now. As far as what to expect out of the gates, Oregon usually looks like a vastly superior team by game’s end, but that’s not always the case early on, as Kelly gets a feel for what the opposing defense is doing, and before Oregon’s tempo can really become a factor. So I’d anticipate a pretty close opening quarter.
SP: Oregon has not faced much adversity this season aside from a little against Washington State, but is there anything to suggest how the Ducks may respond to adversity?
RM: That was one of the big questions I had about this team entering this season, based on its youth at quarterback, and injuries to key seniors (safety) John Boyett and (offensive lineman) Carson York exacerbated the potential for leadership issues. As you point out, the Ducks were in a pretty sticky spot at halftime against Washington State, and passed that test easily. I’m certainly interested to see what might happen were this group to fall behind, like, 14-0, having turned it over a couple times and given up a couple big plays.
SP: When everyone thinks of Oregon they think about the offense, but the defense is having a good season so far. What goes unnoticed and what have been the defenses keys to success so far?
RM: Start up front with a defensive line that sets the tone with its work ethic. (Senior defensive end) Dion Jordan is an all-league player but (junior defensive tackle) Taylor Hart and (junior defensive tackle) Wade Keliikipi are very underrated. And the Ducks have a solid set of backups, to keep everybody on the two-deep fresh.
The linebackers are more athletic than any in school history. (Senior) Kiko Alonso is an NFL talent in the middle, and has really matured now that he’s playing as much as ever before. (Senior) Michael Clay is the heart and soul, although he left the last game with a leg injury. And then the secondary has been huge; (sophomore) cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is top-10 nationally in passes defended and forced fumbles, (junior) safety Brian Jackson is top 10 in fumble recoveries and safety (junior) Avery Patterson has two of the group’s four pick-six interceptions in the last two games.
SP: How does the loss of (senior defensive tackle) Isaac Remington hurt the defense both in terms of starting 11 and in the depth since Chip Kelly rotates a lot?
RM: He was a productive, full-time starter, and his backup is a true freshman, so this is a huge issue to watch. His listed backup, Arik Armstead, was a top-ranked recruit, and he’s been reasonably productive. But if Oregon can’t substitute quite as much, and Arizona State can sustain some long drives, there’s a chance the Ducks could get worn down.
SP: (Redshirt freshman quarterback) Marcus Mariota has thrown an INT in each of last four games. He has yet to face an environment or a defense similar to the one he will face Thursday. What kind of poise does he have and will he be ready to step up?
RM: If you made a list of Mariota’s best qualities, poise would literally be at the top of it. He’s a “laid-back, cool-breeze” guy from Hawaii, to use Chip Kelly’s words. He may have had some issues with coverages, or other breakdowns, but I don’t think he’s really been rattled this season. Now, this first game of the year outside the northwest could change that. I’ve never really considered ASU to be among the tougher places in the conference for an opponent, but it will be different. That said, the crowd for the WSU game was very much partisan, for the Cougars, even though it was technically a neutral site, so Mariota has had at least a taste of a hostile environment.
SP: Aside from (senior running back) Kenjon Barner and (sophomore running back) De’Anthony Thomas, who are the key contributors on this offense, what does ASU need to watch out for?
RM: The breakout star has been tight end (sophomore tight end) Colt Lyerla, who has also lined up at running back, to either operate in the zone-read in a special package with backup (sophomore) quarterback Bryan Bennett, or serve as a blocking back in two-back sets when Mariota is on the field.
Lyerla caught two touchdowns against Washingtonas a tight end, too, so he’s contributing in numerous ways. Also, (junior) receiver Josh Huff is making progress back from a knee injury, having played in the last two games, and could be in for a big night if he’s able to continue on that path.
SP: Josh Huff did miss some time due to injury, but only five receptions has to seem like a slow start for him? Is this simply a product of Oregon spreading the ball around or is something not clicking for him?
RM: Oregon has always spread the ball around a lot under Chip Kelly, which has hurt the numbers its receivers can put up. That said, obviously the missed time due to the knee injury affected Huff’s production. But, he’s also an athlete playing receiver, not close to a finished product as a wide-out. He’s much more of a big-play threat than he is a guy likely to catch eight or nine balls week after week.
SP: What needs to happen for Oregon to win?
RM: Weather the storm from ASU’s front seven long enough for Kelly to feel out the defense and find weaknesses. Avoid breakdowns on special teams … which the Ducks haven’t always done well this season. Keep (ASU redshirt sophomore quarterback) Taylor Kelly off-balance by disguising pressures and coverages, which Oregon does extremely well.
SP: Oregon loses to ASU if….?
RM: Oregon’s offensive line is overwhelmed from the start and the Ducks’ typically effective halftime adjustments are no help. (ASU wins if it can) confuse Mariota into a couple interceptions. Oregon’s punts and field-goal unit have been very inconsistent, so if it’s a close game and a battle of field position, the Ducks might have trouble.
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