5 Keys to an ASU football victory over Oregon State

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TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona State continues to move on up.

Following their 55-31 victory over Notre Dame, the Sun Devils now hold the sixth spot in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, and control their own postseason destiny. The next step towards the playoffs is a key conference battle against Oregon State on Saturday night.

Upon first glance, this game is a mismatch. ASU is rolling, while the Beavers have dropped four consecutive games and are just 1-5 in Pac-12 play. However, if college football has taught us anything this year, it’s to expect the unexpected. 

ASU has lost four straight games in Corvallis, having last beat OSU on the road in 2005. The Beavers also have one of the nation’s most talented quarterbacks in Sean Mannion, and head coach Mike Riley will have his team ready to compete as they attempt to salvage bowl eligibility this season.

Here now are five keys to victory for the Sun Devils.

It’s a trap!

They have just beaten 10th ranked Notre Dame in thrilling fashion. They’re now No. 6 in the playoff rankings. They’re taking a road trip to play a game with a late start time. They’re facing off against a struggling team who has lost four straight.

Yep, that’s about everything you can check off ASU’s “Trap Game Checklist”.

On paper, the Sun Devils have the advantage over Oregon State in every area. Whether that translates onto the field will be ASU’s top mental task on Saturday.

“We just go about our business and really work hard on being focused and being proactive,” said ASU head coach Todd Graham. “We have been focused keeping our guys humbled and hungry.”

It used to be a common occurrence for the Sun Devils. Every time they took a step forward with a big win, they’d almost always take two steps back with a bad loss the next week. However, since Graham took over as head coach, those situations have all but been eliminated.

Under Graham, the Sun Devils have transformed from a weak-minded and undisciplined collection of talent to a disciplined and focused team, one that does not overlook any opponent. When they’ve lost games, it’s because they were beaten by the other teams, not by themselves.

If anything, the win over Notre Dame could help prevent a letdown. ASU now firmly realizes that they control their own destiny, and that should they win out through the Pac-12 championship game, they will become a playoff team.

“The achievement of our goals is close,” said Graham. “This is the time when it is really important to focus, to get better fundamentally, and that each player continues to have their personal best performances and practices each week.”

Sack Mannion

Through the first five games of this season, ASU generated just 10 sacks, part of their 37 tackles for loss. They consistently failed to pressure the quarterback, and in turn, were routinely torched for big gains. They also managed to force just eight turnovers, six of which came against lowly New Mexico and Colorado. 

Over their last three games, the Sun Devils have tallied 15 sacks and 31 tackles for loss while forcing eight turnovers.

This is an entirely different ASU defense.

Since their embarrassing loss to UCLA, ASU has rededicated themselves to bringing more pressure. Already one of the more aggressive defensive schemes in the nation, the renewed focus on attacking offenses has been a resounding success. It has also coincided with the Sun Devils going bigger up front, using more 4-3 looks with Demetrius Cherry and Mo Latu seeing more time at defensive tackle, and 235-pound Antonio Longino taking over at WILL linebacker.

Defensive end Marcus Hardison (team-high six sacks), and SPUR linebacker Laiu Moeakiola (five sacks) have led the way, but ASU brings pressure from all levels and angles. ASU cornerback Lloyd Carrington—the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week—picked up his third sack of the year last week. No matter which direction you look, the Sun Devils are probably bringing pressure from there.

This trends bodes very well for ASU against Oregon State. 

Beaver quarterback Sean Mannion broke the Pac-12’s career passing yardage record earlier this season, and the senior has one of the best arms in the nation. However, he has struggled this year behind a poor offensive line, and is not a threat to run outside the pocket. OSU is tied for 111th in the FBS in sacks allowed, at just over 3.1 per game.

With little threat of a Beaver running game, continued pressure on Mannion should yield excellent returns for ASU on Saturday night. 

Run, Devil, Run

After weeks of struggles, the ASU rushing game showed signs of life when freshman Demario Richard began seeing more time, along with starter D.J. Foster.

After helping power the team to 239 yards on the ground against Utah, the duo played a key role in beating the Fighting Irish. Foster ran for 120 yards—his first 100-yard game since Week 3—and keyed the game-clinching drive with 29 yards on the first two plays. Richard scored two touchdowns, including the capper off of that critical drive, and had 101 yards from scrimmage. 

A strong ground game is the foundation of ASU’s offense, and when Foster and Richard are ripping off big runs, the Sun Devil defense is difficult to stop. 

OSU’s run defense has been average, ranking 55th nationally at 152.3 yards per game. A healthy dose of Foster and Richard should wear down the Beaver front. Success will also allow the Sun Devils to strike outside and downfield with wide receivers Jaelen Strong and Cam Smith with greater space.

Get TK back on track

ASU keeps winning, but that doesn’t mean all is well as the play of quarterback Taylor Kelly continues to be a concern. While he’s not been bad, he’s clearly not playing at the level that earned him second-team All-Pac-12 honors a year ago. 

While rust from his prolonged absence due to a foot injury was a factor, as well as the weather in the Washington game, have been cited, Kelly had another underwhelming game against Notre Dame. While he did throw for three touchdowns, he missed on a number of makeable throws and threw a very ill-advised interception that a player of his ability and experience simply cannot make. 

To his credit, he has come through when his team needed him, leading key scoring drives against Washington, Utah, and Notre Dame. While his play has not yet cost the team a win, it does remain a concern.

Facing a vulnerable OSU defense is another opportunity for Kelly to right the ship and return to his championship form. If and when Kelly returns to his 2013 level, it will be bad news for whoever stands in ASU’s way.

Stay Warm

Another way to even up an otherwise one-sided game? Bring in Mother Nature.

Right now, the forecasted temperature at kickoff is expected to be around 28 degrees. As noted by ASU’s stat guru Jeremy Hawkes, it would mark ASU’s coldest game since the 1970s. Mild to moderate winds are expected, although snow/sleet is no longer in the forecast.

ASU has already battled the elements earlier this year. In their 24-10 win at Washington, ASU played through wind gusts in excess of 60 mph with light rain.

Summary & Prediction

If this same ASU team were heading into this game under the former coaching staff, it would be almost a guaranteed loss. However, one of the biggest changes for ASU under Graham has been the ability to sustain focus, block out distractions, and play quality football. That’s what a team needs to avoid falling victim to a trap game.

ASU is quite simply the better and more talented team, and the only way that they should not return to Tempe 9-1 is if they beat themselves with mistakes and turnovers.

The Sun Devil defense should be able to generate pressure throughout the night, forcing Mannion and company into several mistakes. Meanwhile, the ground game and Strong should make big plays and keep the scoreboard operators busy. That adds up to ASU jumping out to a big lead in the first half and getting a comfortable win.

Prediction: ASU wins 48-21