The Oregon Ducks are back in the national spotlight again this week as ESPN's College Gameday heads back to Eugene for what seems like the 10th time in the last two years. This time around, the Ducks welcome Arizona State to town in a matchup that pits North vs. South in the Pac-12.
After falling to LSU in the season-opener, Oregon has rebounded and shown its typical form, grinding up teams with a fast-paced offense and aggressive defense. On the other side of the field stands Arizona State, a team that's well out in front in the Pac-12 South and looks destined for a conference championship game berth. Both teams are ranked inside the top-25 and both have just one loss at the season.
Oregon will likely be without their star running back after LaMichael James went down with a gruesome dislocated elbow in the Thursday night game last week. Though he was in high spirits after the game, all signs point toward the Ducks taking the field without their game-breaker in the backfield.
A quick status update: how do you feel about your teams thus far this season?
Dave: I feel pretty good about the team thus far. There are some glaring problems--first and foremost being that the WRs are terrible, and the defense hasn't been forcing the turnovers that they did last year. But the offense has been potent and the defense has done enough. Will that continue without LaMichael James? That is the story of the game.
Brad: After defeating Utah, the feeling surrounding ASU is one of the utmost optimism. At 5-1 and 3-0 in conference, the Sun Devils are now firmly in the driver's seat in the Pac-12 South, with their final five games all against teams that should be significant underdogs to ASU. The biggest question coming into the season was whether Brock Osweiler was a legitimate quarterback, and that has been resoundingly answered in the affirmative.
If LaMichael James doesn't go, which seems likely, does it change the game? What changes for the Ducks offensively (if anything, other than plug and play) and what changes for the ASU defense?
Dave: Yes, it definitely changes the game. I don't think it will change what plays Chip Kelly calls, but I don't think Kenjon Barner is as good as LaMichael James. I see him being a bit more hit and miss, where he either goes for 2 or for 70. I don't see him being able to get at least 4-5 physical yards on every run. It could lead to much less offensive consistency.
Brad: Overall, I don't expect much of a change in how the explosive Ducks' attack operates on Saturday. Behind James are a bevy of explosive game breakers led by Kenjon Barner who, as is popularly stated, could start for 110 other teams in the nation. If there is any change, it may be that quarterback Darron Thomas runs a bit more off the spread-option sets, something he has not done nearly as much as he did a year ago.
For Oregon: Where's Cliff Harris?
Dave: Wish we knew. Chip Kelly is clearly trying to make some kind of point, but he won't talk and we're all confused as to what that point is. Obviously, not having the best defensive player on the field is not a thing most of us on ATQ are happy about. We are clearly a worse defense without Cliff in the lineup.
For Arizona State: Where's the normal Burfict?
Brad: Much has been made on the "bad" season that Vontaze Burfict has had, but I don't totally buy into that. Coming into the season, he had a Phantom Menace level of hype, so anything short of absolute domination would have been a disappointment. Overall, he's been solid, but has yet to have a truly dominate game, as he's tried to adopt the "controlled rage" the coaches want from him. I think the breakout game is coming, perhaps even this week.
Your team's biggest advantage over its opponent this week?
Dave: Oregon's biggest advantage is that this game is at Autzen, and if anyone is going to implode on the road in a hostile environment, its Arizona State. I do think we're the best team in the Pac-12, but I don't feel as confident about that talent advantage with our best player out and our second best player only getting garbage time because he's in the doghouse.
Brad: The defense. The Sun Devils proved a year ago that they can play with and are capable of defending Oregon, and were ultimately undone by their offense's seven turnovers. The ASU defense is third in the nation in takeaways forced and creating multiple turnovers on Saturday will be critical in slowing down the Ducks.
Your team's biggest weakness this week?
Dave: Some dude named LaMichael likely isn't playing. That's our biggest weakness.
Brad: Speed. The Devils talent level has drastically improved since Dennis Erickson took over in 2007, but they simply don't have speed on both sides of the ball that Oregon has. That means that the Sun Devils margin for error is essentially eliminated and must play a perfect game to beat the Ducks in Eugene.
Score predictions and why?
Dave: I think it'll be the biggest scare Oregon has had at Autzen in awhile, but this team just doesn't lose at home. 35-28 Oregon.
Brad: Even without their Heisman contending running back, Oregon is still one of the elite offenses in the country, and few teams can match their overall team speed. This is a huge statement game for ASU, and while they have the talent to pull off the win, I think Oregon escapes with a narrow 38-34 win.
Final thoughts, players to watch, Pac-12 North/South smack talk?
Dave: The player to watch is clearly Kenjon Barner. If he can hold up the load at RB, and produce a good game on the ground, Oregon should be fine. If he struggles watch out.
As for smack talk, I would like to congratulate ASU on already clinching their spot in the Pac-12 title game. Winning a division with Arizona, Colorado, UCLA, and Utah is worthy of respect and admiration.
Brad: This game should be the first of two match-ups between these two teams this season. ASU should run the table after this game to secure the South crown, while the winner of November 12th's Oregon versus Stanford game should represent the North. Keep an eye on how Darron Thomas is able to operate Oregon's offense in the absence of LaMichael James, while for the Sun Devils, the pressure will fall on the offense thwart the Ducks' blitz schemes to keep Brock Osweiler upright. If Osweiler is able to be comfortable in the pocket, he should be able to exploit a weak Oregon secondary and keep ASU in the game.