The Arizona State Sun Devils began their week on Tuesday with a Thursday practice as they prepared to face the 4-3 Oregon Ducks.
While the Ducks are a much different team this year after quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Marcus Mariota departed for the NFL draft, where he was the second overall pick, Oregon still poses a threat to the Arizona State defense.
Now the Sun Devils are hoping to utilize a bye week that was focused on fundamentals to create a sound game plan that will thwart Oregon's ground attack.
Bye Week Byproducts
Both fans and the media had lofty expectations for this Sun Devil squad entering this season and so far ASU has yet to fill those expectations. For a team who some thought may go 10-2, the Sun Devils have already dropped two Pac-12 games just four games into the conference and another nonconference game to Texas A&M, all in large part due to what the coaches said was a lack of fundamental thinking.
"I think it was really good for us to go back and focus on the fundamentals which kind of slipped during the course of the year," defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "Simple things like forcing takeaways. You talk about it all the time but to make it an emphasis, that's one thing."
Tackling has been a huge problem for ASU this season and another fundamental issue for a team that has more weapons than they oftentimes know what to do with.
"We are also trying to strive to be a better tackling football team, " Patterson said. "We've got a lot of missed tackles, a lot of times on the second level, a lot of those are out in space so we've really put an emphasis on becoming a better tackling football team. It doesn't matter what we've done in the last four games we have to keep stopping the run and making people one-dimensional and that will give us a chance to win."
In order to make teams one-dimensional, Patterson echoes accuracy in each person's own assignments, especially when focused on the run defense.
"Things like getting your stance and your eyes on your key and on your stem and your backpedal and making sure you maintain leverage on people and then communication, making sure we're all on the same page and playing the same coverage," Patterson said.
Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell said while there's going to be a wrinkle in every game, it's important to get a different perspective as to how ASU wants to attack. Oregon puts out a weaker defense overall this season (the worst pass defense in the Pac-12) but is still armed with one of the best defensive weapons in the league in 6-foot-7, 300-pound senior defensive lineman Deforest Buckner.
"We know that this is going to be an extremely talented team coming and you look at them defensively they're long, they're athletic, they can make plays, probably have the best defensive lineman in the country in the Buckner kid," Norvell said. "I think he's a special player so it's going to be two good football teams and it's coming down to execution, making plays and going out there and doing our job."
The biggest focus for ASU as they prepare for Oregon is the Ducks' 5-foot-11, 230-pound running back Royce Freeman. The unstoppable sophomore rushed for a collegiate best 246 yards in his last game against Washington State.
"The thing about him is: one, he's big, he's 230 pounds and he runs behind his pads," Patterson said. "He gives them nothing but hard surfaces when he's running. He rolls those pads over towards the defense and he makes you make a decision: Are you going to come tackle me or not? If you try to stay up high, you're going to bounce off him and so we really have to be good and explosive, running through and stopping the engine and going through the hit and making sure that our pad level is lower than his."
Patterson describes Oregon's aerial attack as a combination of UCLA and USC where speedy wide receivers open up run lanes inside by stretching the field horizontally and vertically. In trying to bog down inside and stop the run, ASU opens itself up to the risk of blown coverage down the field.
"You got to be prepared," Norvell said. "They do a great job mixing up when they do pressure and then when they drop eight so you have to do things to defend both. We have to be great with our eyes, great with our protection, and then when you get those opportunities to make those plays downfield we have to make them and so that's going to be one of the biggest aspects of this game."
Oregon has undoubtedly struggled to regain their tight hold over the conference, however the Ducks still possess some of the best skill position players in the conference that ASU will need to contain in order to win this nationally-televised Thursday matchup.
"If you combine (Paul) Perkins (UCLA) and (Devontae) Booker (Utah) you probably have Oregon's running back," Patterson said. "Then you got to keep an athletic quarterback in the pocket and maintain pass rush lane integrity. But we have a good plan and it no doubt begins with stopping the run. So it'll be a handful, but we're looking forward to the challenge."
- Media was only allowed to watch stretching.
- Jalen Harvey, Armand Perry and Brady White were all in green non-contact jerseys.