Thursday, October 13, 2011
ASU embracing opportunity of Autzen
By Ted Miller
Brock Osweiler is now a different player than the one he was the last time he visited Autzen.
The last time Brock Osweiler played in Autzen Stadium, he was the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Arizona State since Jake Plummer in 1993. He had a horrible day.
The last time Arizona State played Oregon, it lost the turnover battle 7-2 in an oh-what-might-have-been 42-31 loss in Tempe.
Things have changed.
For one, Osweiler and his team are much different than they were in those past two contests. In 2009, the wide-eyed 18-year-old kid from Kalispell, Mont., completed five of 10 passes before he got his bell rung in the first quarter and was knocked out of the game. That was the fourth defeat of a six-game losing streak to end a 4-8 season.
Now the Sun Devils are 5-1 and ranked 18th in the nation, and Osweiler is a dangerous dual-threat quarterback who is averaging 280 yards passing per game and has thrown 13 touchdown passes and run for two others.
And as for last season's sloppiness, the Sun Devils also have transformed their ball security. They lead the Pac-12 in turnover margin at plus-8, although their strength is forcing 18, five more than any other conference team. The Ducks, meanwhile, are minus-1.
In other words, the Sun Devils' showdown with No. 9 Oregon on Saturday, on paper, looks like it should be significantly different than the previous two vintages. Arizona State, although a two-touchdown underdog, has a realistic chance to make a national statement.
That starts with Osweiler, who must deal with the din of Autzen Stadium, which will limit his ability to communicate more than any other venue in the Pac-12. The difference this go-around, though, is he knows what to expect and, even more important, knows what the heck he's doing.
ASU coach Dennis Erickson said there's little doubt Osweiler will play better.
"He's played games and made throws and understands what we’re doing offensively," he said. "It’s totally different for him.”
The Sun Devils as a whole are different. This is a veteran team that has already demonstrated resilience. That was not a trademark quality the past two seasons, when they lost eight games by five or fewer points.
"We have a lot of seniors that have been through some things here," Erickson said. "They just keep competing all the time. To me, it’s leadership.”
Both Erickson and Oregon coach Chip Kelly talked extensively to reporters about turnovers this week. That obviously will be a key, particularly with running back LaMichael James likely out with a dislocated elbow. James' absence means more touches for Kenjon Barner and a pair of true freshmen, De'Anthony Thomas and Tra Carson.
The Ducks have lost only three fumbles this year, but two came from Thomas and one from Barner. Of course, all those came in the opener against LSU.
"It seems like they've got great vision," Kelly said of the Sun Devils' propensity to force miscues. "They've got a great understanding of what the opposing offense is trying to do. They get hands on a lot of balls."
Beyond mistakes, there's the running game. Last season, the Sun Devils actually outrushed the Ducks 210 yards to 125. A repeat seems unlikely.
The Ducks rank fifth in the nation in rushing (312.6 yards per game). The Sun Devils have been solid against the run this year. They will need to bring their run defense A-game to Autzen, because if the Ducks run well, they will run all over you, particularly at home.
The Sun Devils have lost 15 in a row against top-10 teams, but their last victory over one came in 2002 against then-No. 6 Oregon, 45-42. In Eugene.
Oregon is a huge challenge for any team. But the Sun Devils believe, this season, they aren't just any team. They are embracing the opportunity and the big-game atmosphere.
Said Erickson, sounding just a bit coy, "It’s what we’re here for, so we’ll see what happens."