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Arizona State vs. Oregon State: Players to watch

You probably know Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks but who are the other players that Arizona State must stop Saturday?

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

There will be very little margin for error for Arizona State and Oregon State Saturday in a game that projects to be a shootout. The team that blinks first will likely be the team that walks away with another tally in the loss column.

So who are the players that will make the difference on both sides? Let's take a look:

(Editor's Note: Since Todd Graham has already said that Brandin Cooks is basically The Second Coming 12 times in the past three days, we're going to try our best to keep his name off this list).

Arizona State

Evan Finkenberg and his offensive line mates: The recipe to beating Oregon State isn't too far off of what it takes to top Arizona State. If you can keep each team's explosive, no-huddle offenses off the field, you're going to stand a pretty good chance.

The best way to go about accomplishing is as simple as you might guess: run the damn ball.

For all but about five minutes against Utah, Arizona State's offensive line was entirely over-matched. Marion Grice had nothing to work with which led to too many of his runs being bumped outside for little to no gain. About 60 percent of that was due to Utah's physicality; the other 40 percent came down to head coach Kyle Whittingham using the team's bye week to its fullest by adding some new defensive looks.

Finkenberg told our editor emeritus, Brad Denny, that he wasn't pleased with how long it took for the line to adjust before acknowledging "every time they come off a bye week, they're going to throw new wrinkles at us." The Beavers have the same bye-week luxury before facing Arizona State meaning that there's a high likelihood that ASU's blocking scheme will be a fluid situation. If it takes three quarters for the big men up front to adapt again, Arizona State is going to be looking at a deficit far larger than 12 points.

At least this one will be at home though. In Arizona State's last game in Tempe, the offensive line turned in its most complete performance against Washington.

Gannon Conway: I can't think of a single Arizona State player who has been as rewarding to watch as Conway. The senior defensive end has rapidly evolved into one of ASU's most well-rounded defenders. Much like Carl Bradford last year, Conway now seems to be around the ball on every play. And coming off the best game of his career, Conway will be once again be an X-Factor on defense.

The USC Trojans were kind enough to set the blueprint for beating the Beavers two weeks ago. The Trojans got Oregon State's offense out of its comfort zone early on and the Beavers were never able to recover.

That's where Conway comes in.

Last week against Utah, Conway matched his career-high in tackles (four) plus chipped in a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss in the first quarter alone. A similarly fast start would work wonders if Arizona State is looking to follow in USC's footsteps.

Jaelen Strong: For the second straight week, Strong makes this list. And it's all because of the fact that he hasn't had a catch over 11 yards in the past three games.

Strong's route tree has shrunk dramatically since he originally injured his ankle against Washington. Arizona State's No. 1 target should be closer to 100 percent this week though and the timing couldn't be better. Every Sun Devil receiver struggled to create separation against Utah. A repeat performance is out of the question if Arizona State has any aspirations of keeping pace with the Beavers. Because as we all know, Strong, when healthy, is the only aspect of ASU's offense that can be counted on when all else goes to hell.

Oregon State's defense certainly isn't shutdown-caliber but the secondary is the unit's strong point. The Beavers' coverage men have the speed to hang with any receiver in the conference. In other words, a hobbled Strong running short routes isn't going to do Arizona State any good.

Oregon State

Storm Woods: Woods is capable as a ball-carrier but what Arizona State needs to be most conscious of are his hands. It's no secret that Arizona State's defense wants to be aggressive against a lead-footed, pocket-passer such as Sean Mannion. To do that successfully, it'll need to eliminate his safety valves.

If you aren't familiar with his work, Woods is the type of back who turns a simple dump off into a 20 or 30-yard gain. Arizona State will have no choice but to back off if Mannion begins clicking with him. And that's when the downfield onslaught from Cooks and Richard Mullaney will begin.

The Beavers are one of the best screen teams in college football so you can bet they'll draw up a few for Woods. A storybook scenario would have Arizona State eliminating that aspect early to force the Beavers to be even more one-dimensional then they already are.

Connor Hamlett & Caleb Smith: With Hamlett working through a knee injury and Caleb Smith battling back spasms, the Beavers haven't played a game with both of their top tight ends since Oct. 12. Barring a setback, that streak will end Saturday.

Beyond being a quick check down options like Woods, Hamlett and Smith are also an integral part of Oregon State's max protection scheme. To put their size into perspective, Smith is the smaller of the two at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds. Talk about a matchup nightmare.

The return of Mannion's largest targets should provide a boost to Oregon State's red zone offense as well. That's been the Beavers' Achilles' heel as of late but the sheer size of OSU's tight end duo present Mannion with some easy reads and a larger margin of error.

On top of it all, Hamlett and Smith add another downfield dimension to Oregon State's offense. If Mannion is able to attack the middle third of the field with his big tight ends, Arizona State's defense is going to have a hard time getting off the field Saturday.

Scott Crichton & Dylan Wynn: Oregon State's defensive ends make up for their lack of size with some eye-popping athleticism. And theoretically, the lateral speed of Crichton and Wynn make them just as capable of shutting down the read-option as a physical team such as Utah. But upon execution, that hasn't been the case this season.

On top of their struggles containing mobile quarterbacks, Oregon State hasn't stood a chance against the Pac-12's top-tier ball-carriers. Silas Redd and Javorius Allen combined for 273 yards and three touchdowns against the Beavers two weeks again. In the game before that, Tyler Gaffney gashed them for 145 yards and three scores.

At the very least, Crichton and Wynn are going to need to be active in the pass-rushing department. Oregon State's secondary has a hard time racking up takeaways if there isn't any pressure working in front of them.