Everybody breathe. The Arizona State Sun Devils escaped Salt Lake City with a narrow win over Utah last weekend, and now they return home to the friendly confines of Sun Devil Stadium.
Oregon State is on its way into town, and the Beavers have been about as hard to read as any team in the Pac-12 so far. The offense put up videogame numbers in its first seven games, but things have cooled off in losses to Stanford and USC in the last two weeks.
Meanwhile, the Sun Devil offense struggled for the first time in weeks, but the defense remained strong, and Arizona State still hasn't allowed more than 24 points since the Notre Dame game.
Oregon State's defense isn't very good, so the Sun Devils should get back on track, especially at home, but the big question is can Arizona State keep the Beavers down, or will Oregon State turn this one into a shootout?
Matchup of the Week: Osahon Irabor vs. Brandin Cooks
It's fair to say that no two players in the Pac-12 have helped their draft stock more this year than Irabor and Cooks.
Irabor has been the biggest reason for the Sun Devils' defensive surge over the last four weeks. He plays shutdown defense and helps set the edge in the run game. Irabor has propelled himself into second-day draft considerations, something that was thought to be nearly impossible in August.
Cooks' numbers are downright ridiculous. Through nine games, the senior has 91 receptions, 1,344 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has been the go-to receiver for quarterback Sean Mannion all season, and for a short period, both Cooks and Mannion were getting some Heisman love.
Cooks didn't exactly come out of nowhere, but nobody expected him to be this dominant. Cooks' two worst games have come in the last two weeks and still both games produced at least 80 yards and a score.
If Irabor can shut down Cooks, or at worst limit him to his last two performances, the Sun Devils should be able to cruise. But that's not as easy as it sounds.
Cooks is one of the better all-around receivers in the country. He is the best route runner in the conference and has great burst out of his breaks. He also seemingly has a sixth sense when running routes.
In the Hawaii win, Cooks ran a dig in the end zone, but two yards into his cut, he put the breaks on and reverse route to the sideline, where Mannion found him for a touchdown. Mannion had been flushed from the pocket, but Cooks never looked up to see that. Instead, he just seemed to know that his quarterback was in trouble and adjusted properly.
Cooks doesn't have elite speed, but neither does Irabor, so it will be important for the Sun Devils' top corner to keep the diminutive receiver in front of him. Irabor is incredibly strong for a corner and has developed into the best press corner in the Pac-12.
Physicality gives Cooks, and to a larger extent, Mannion all sorts of problems. Mannion doesn't make progressions well, and he often locks on to his targets. Furthermore, when Mannion's first read is someone other than Cooks, and that target is covered, he almost always forces the ball to Cooks on the second look. This worked earlier in the season, but against USC and Stanford, Mannion either had passes batted down or intercepted.
When he didn't force the ball to Cooks, Mannion often froze, leading to 10 total sacks between the two games.
Irabor and the Sun Devils will want to get in Cooks' chest and reroute him off the line of scrimmage. So how does Oregon State counter that?
Hawaii made the same adjustment, as did Utah. In both games, Mannion got the ball to Cooks on the screen pass and Cooks, who is shockingly hard to tackle, made big plays.
The Sun Devils struggle making tackles at the initial point of contact, and Cooks will be looking to wiggle free and turn short passes into chunk plays. Cooks is also great in traffic. He knows how to find pockets and sit in them, or when to use his head and hips to lead corners in the wrong direction.
Against Utah, he consistently got over the top by leaning in on a hard slant off the line, but then breaking hard back up the seam and beating two-deep coverage.
Arizona State can take that away by playing one or three-deep, with a combination man and zone scheme, where Irabor plays man on Cooks while the rest of the team falls into a zone. Heavy pressure would also help the Sun Devils play the cover one.
Irabor and Robert Nelson will both want to be on the lookout for the ball all night. Mannion isn't afraid to throw the ball to Cooks when he is covered, and when the Beavers were playing less physical opponents, Cooks would go up and make a lot of the plays. He has great hands and doesn't shy away from contact.
The best way for the Sun Devils to shut down the Beavers is to limit Cooks. Everything Oregon State does is predicated on getting Cooks going and in space. A strong game plan heavy with press coverage and pressure should allow the Sun Devils' secondary to force turnovers and limit Cooks. But if Irabor can't get a jam on Cooks, or tries to run with him, the Beavers could turn this one into a Saturday night shootout.