TEMPE, Ariz. -- “They’re a very, very good football team. They know their identity. They figured it out in a hurry.”
A quick scan of the numbers back up Todd Graham's assessment of the Oregon State Beavers.
And then some.
Mike Riley's squad likes to pass the ball first, pass it again second, and then pass some more for good measure.
Coming into this Saturday's battle with Arizona State in Tempe, the Beavers rank third nationally in passing yards (3,643) and fifth in attempts (449). On the flip side, only two teams in the FBS have run it fewer times than Oregon State's 235 attempts (and 19 of those attempts have been sacks).
Those figures paint a pretty clear picture of what to expect for an Arizona State's defense that is rolling after another strong showing last Saturday in the 20-19 win over Utah.
The Sun Devils held the Utes to just 247 yards of offense—with only 121 through the air—continuing a stretch of excellent performance in recent weeks. Over the last four games, ASU's opponents have averaged just 257 yards of offense per game, and after the two-game road swing, the Sun Devil defense is looking forward to coming back to Tempe.
“We play really well at home, so we are excited about that," said ASU cornerback Osahon Irabor. "We understand that they have a very dynamic receiver and a very good passing offense with the quarterback-to-receiver combination. We have a pretty good pass defense, so we’re looking to keep that up.”
ASU now ranks 19th in the nation in pass defense, allowing just over 206 yards per game. While the team's pass rush has been a major factor, contributing 17 sacks over the last four games, the players in the secondary have also stepped up their play during that span.
Along with known commodities in Irabor and safety Alden Darby, other players have emerged, principally cornerbacks Robert Nelson and Lloyd Carrington. Nelson in particular has been a ballhawk, collecting three interceptions over the last four games, helping to put early season struggles behind him.
“I always tell Rob, ‘Just keep chipping away. Next play.’ Me and Darby always tell the guys not to let anyone take their confidence," Irabor said. "I think Rob has shown that the last couple of games that he can be the guy to make the play at the end. Nobody was happier for him on that play (Nelson's interception at Utah) than me and Alden, the way we represent the secondary.”
"It shows their maturity and how they’ve been getting to work during practice and seriously they are taking it," Darby added.
The Sun Devil defense will need all those hands on deck and playing their A-games this Saturday night against the Beavers. While Oregon State's run/pass ratio may be similar to prior ASU opponent Washington State's, the offensive scheme differs significantly.
“We’re going to see schemes that are different than what we’ve seen week to week," Graham said.
The Beavers utilize more of a pro-set look in their offense than the Cougars' spread attack, which includes large doses of tight ends and fullbacks. Those personnel packages give the team the flexibility to run a wide variety of plays and feature several players.
“They do a lot: screens, deep passes. They do everything," said Darby. "They are a great passing team, and Brandin Cooks is a great receiver. They do it all and utilize all of their weapons.”
Stopping Cooks is ASU's top priority, and likely priority No. 2 as well.
The 5-foot-10 junior is one of the most electrifying players in the nation, and Oregon State uses him in a variety of ways, including as a runner. Through nine games, Cooks has 91 catches for 1,344 yards and 14 touchdowns, while rushing 23 times for 174 yards and two more touchdowns.
“Dynamic receiver," Irabor said of Cooks. He’s obviously their guy that they want to get the ball to," Irabor said. "He’s dangerous with the ball in his hands."
Graham was much more effusive in his take on Cooks.
"Big play capabilities," Graham said. "He is really special. He is No. 1 statistically in all-purpose yards as well as receiving yards. In my opinion, he is the best receiver I’ve seen on film in this conference."
In a conference with the likes of Marqise Lee, Jaelen Strong, and Dres Anderson, that is high praise indeed.
While Cooks deservedly gets the headlines, ASU can't afford to sleep on the other Beaver options.
Richard Mullaney, playing the X-receiver spot opposite Cooks, is a well-rounded and sure-handed 6-foot-3 target. Running backs Storm Woods and Terron Ward are a threat out of the backfield, having combined for 59 receptions, and 6-foot-7, 265-pound tight end Connor Hamlett is a dangerous redzone threat, with four touchdowns on the year.
While playing a team with such aerial weapons and pass-happy playcalling may force some teams to alter their defensive gameplan, ASU is sticking to their guns.
"We always look at what other teams have done, but we’re also going to do what we do: Attack and get after it," said Graham. "We do plenty without having to do what somebody else is doing.”
Darby shares the same sentiment. “No adjustments. It’s our same gameplan. We don’t let the offense dictate what we do. We’re an attacking style defense, that’s what we do.”
ASU will continue to bring pressure from all angles in an attempt for force quarterback Sean Mannion into mistakes. While a strong-armed signal caller, the 6-foot-5 Mannion is a prototypical pocket passer and is not a threat to leave the pocket.
That pressure from the Sun Devil front seven will mean that the secondary will put greater pressure on the secondary to play well and avoid giving up the big plays that have burned them several times this season.
Doing so comes from both quality scheming and good execution.
“We’re going to minimize risk, because we run a high risk defense," said Graham.
“We must be locked into our coverage play, and be assignment sound and make sure no one is running free downfield," Irabor said. "We need to make sure we communicate. We do a lot of checking on defense, we need to make sure we are locked in and keeping the defense off balance.”
This high-powered battle between a high-flying offense and a stout defense figures to be one of the more entertaining, and important, matchups that ASU will face all season. For the Sun Devils, this is just one more step towards Pasadena in January.
"We all have the same common goal, and that’s to get to the Rose Bowl by any means necessary, no matter who is in our way."