The Arizona State Sun Devils return to Tempe after conquering a two-game road trip that required toughness, tenacity, and a never-say-die attitude.
Prior to the Sun Devils' road trip to Washington State, many believed that Arizona State lacked the ability to win on the road. When the Sun Devils beat the Cougars, doubters still said that Todd Graham's squad couldn't win in a hostile environment. Saturday's victory over Utah may not have looked pretty, but for Graham, it was "mission accomplished."
Arizona State will play the role of host this weekend against Oregon State and it's a responsibility that the Sun Devils have enjoyed throughout the season. The Sun Devils are 5-0 in front of their home fans and the offense has put up 50 points in four of its five home outings.
Oregon State invades the desert riding a two-game losing streak, although both losses came against the two hottest teams in the Pac-12. The Beavers' offense carried the team to a 6-1 start, but Sean Mannion and Co. have mustered just 26 points in their last two games combined.
Can Oregon State right the ship after a bye week and get back on track against Arizona State? Or will the Sun Devils' home successes continue to keep them atop the Pac-12 South? Let's meet the Beavers.
The First Look
Season to Date
The Beavers opened the season as a surprise Top 25 team in the AP poll after a 9-4 finish last season. The good will was building in Corvallis, but it didn't last more than a single game as the Beavers suffered one of the most stunning losses of the season. Oregon State dropped its season-opener 49-46 against FCS opponent Eastern Washington.
The loss hurt the morale of the team, but coach Mike Riley vowed the Beavers would be back. Oregon State started its climb back toward a national ranking with a win against Hawaii followed by an overtime victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Utah.
After improving to 2-1, Utah stole a 34-30 victory against San Diego State on the road before returning to Corvallis to trounce Colorado 44-17. Even at 4-1, the Beavers were flying under the radar because of their loss to Eastern Washington.
Oregon State began to pick up steam after rolling against Washington State and dominating a downtrodden California squad. At 6-1, Oregon State was officially back and the Beavers were averaging nearly 45 points per game.
The poll voters finally began to overlook the loss to Eastern Washington by the time Oregon State played host to Stanford. The Cardinal didn't exactly bring their A-game, but Oregon State's offense couldn't get anything going against a vaunted Stanford front and a late rally fell short in a 20-12 loss.
Oregon State proved it could compete with anybody after the Stanford loss, yet the Beavers suffered another setback the following week. The USC Trojans traveled North to take on the Beavers and dealt Oregon State its third loss of the season in a 31-14 final.
The Beavers have now had a week to regroup after two consecutive losses and Mike Riley's team has always been efficient on the road. Tempe does have an In N' Out near the stadium, so the Beavers players will have a little extra incentive to push their record to 7-3 against Arizona State.
Head Coach: Mike Riley
Record (At Oregon State and overall): 87-70, 56-53 in Pac-10/12 play
Oregon State on Offense
Oregon State's offensive game plan is very similar to the strategy belonging to Washington State, but there's one major difference between the Cougars and the Beavers. While Washington State loves to sling it, the Cougars are merely an above-average passing attack. As for Oregon State, quarterback Sean Mannion leads the second-most prolific passing offense in the country.
Mannion is college football's leading passer with an average of more than 393 yards per game. The junior quarterback's 31 touchdown passes rank second only to Fresno State's Derek Carr (32) and he has a great command for the Beavers' offense.
Mannion started as a freshman and after splitting time with backup Cody Vaz early in his career, the Calif. native won the job entering this year and he hasn't looked back. Much of his success is due to the play of wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who has morphed into a leading candidate for the Biletnikoff Award which goes to the nation's top receiver.
Cooks is far and away the country's leading receiver and his stats are even more impressive than Texas A&M wideout Mike Evans who has saved Johnny Manziel's reputation on numerous occasions with incredible acrobatic catches. Cooks leads the NCAA in receiving yards with 1,344 and receiving touchdowns with 14.
Mannion is willing to look at receivers besides Cooks, but only Richard Mullaney has half as many receptions as Cooks' 91 catches. Mullaney is a redshirt sophomore who has 43 catches for 659 yards. After the top two, running back Storm Woods is the only receiver who comes close to being considered a top target for Mannion as his 35 receptions indicate.
Woods splits time in the backfield with junior Terron Ward, and neither back has hit the 300-yard mark on the ground for the season. Ward has 277 yards while Woods has racked up 234 yards and both have 75 carries on the year. If Oregon State doesn't have to run, the Beavers probably won't because Riley feels much more comfortable with the ball in Mannion's hands.
On the offensive line, Oregon State doesn't have any particular standouts. In fact, the best blocker might be tight end Connor Hamlett who has the tallest frame of any Beaver in a three-point stance at 6-foot-7.
Center Isaac Seumalo is the Beavers' top lineman and though he's just a sophomore, the coaching staff has praised him for his knowledge of the offense. Aside from Seumalo, three seniors anchor the offensive line while sophomore tackle Gavin Andrews is the only other underclassman along the front line.
Oregon State will test the Arizona State defensive backs, but it's a test they have experience in taking as the Sun Devils already faced Washington State this season. The Beavers are by far the better passing offense, so Arizona State's ability to adjust will be critical at home on Saturday.
Oregon State on Defense
At the beginning of the year, no one believed that Oregon State's 4-3 defense would be able to stop anybody. After all, the Beavers gave up a startling 46 points to Eastern Washington and allowed 48 points to a Utah squad that hasn't hit the 20-point marker in a month.
Like all good teams, Oregon State did rebound with a number of solid defensive efforts including a stretch of four consecutive games in which it held opponents below 25 points in each contest. Now, the Beavers seem to have their defensive foundation set, but they haven't faced an offense quite like Arizona State's since the start of the season.
The Beavers have a great base on the defensive line with players like Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn who aren't typical ends. Each weighs less than 270 pounds, but both can penetrate the backfield, get to the quarterback, and stop the run because of their low pad level off of the ball. Crichton has 12 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks which both lead the team.
The linebacker level is likely the least menacing group on the Beaver defense, especially because the Beavers' backers don't have great tackle numbers this season. Jabral Johnson didn't open the season as a starter, but he has become the best of the bunch and now leads the team with 67 tackles.
Redshirt freshman Rommel Mageo is akin to the Sun Devils' Salamo Fiso, a rugged athlete who has had growing pains at times throughout the season but has stayed in the lineup because of the promise he brings for the future and his nose for the football. Mageo seems to have supplanted Joel Skotte at outside backer and his four tackles for loss are a primary reason why.
Oregon State's secondary is its most talented and effective group on defense and the Sun Devils will have their challenges throwing deep agains the Beavers. Safeties Tyrequek Zimmerman and Ryan Murphy are two of the team's top three tacklers and Murphy's six tackles for loss actually rank second on the team.
Because the Beavers are willing to play their safeties, especially Murphy, up in the box, the cornerbacks are left on an island more often than other defensive backs in the conference. Rashaad Reynolds and Steven Nelson have proven more than capable in handling those responsibilities as the pair has combined for nine interceptions on the season.
The Beavers are ninth in the Pac-12 in total defense, so the Sun Devil offense should be able to regain the confidence it may have lost during its first three quarters at Utah on Saturday. The biggest issue for Arizona State will be winning the turnover battle, as the Beavers rank second in the conference with a margin of +1.0 per game.
If Arizona State can protect the football, moving the ball should take care of itself. As for the Beavers, they'll rely on a strong performance from their secondary to take down the Devils in Tempe.