The Oregon Ducks may have lost five consecutive games, but Mark Helfrich’s team is still favored against the Arizona State Sun Devils this weekend.
With health concerns all over the field, one of the best running backs in the conference on the other sideline, and a raucous home-field advantage waiting for the team in Eugene, there is definitely cause for concern as Arizona State looks to get its first Pac-12 road win and obtain bowl eligibility this weekend.
“Their ability to score points is definitely the strength of their football team,” said head coach Todd Graham after Tuesday’s practice. “(Opponents) have jumped out on them and they have come roaring back. They’ve obviously lost quite a few in a row, which is uncharacteristic, but they’ve been in most of those games.”
Indeed, the Ducks might not be as bad as their 2-5 record would indicate.
They lost by just three points on the road against No. 7 Nebraska, a game they likely could have won if not for a strange “go for two after every touchdown” strategy deployed by Helfrich.
There have been a pair of other three-point losses since, one against a Colorado team that beat the Sun Devils by 24, and the other coming in double overtime last week at California. Needless to say, while Oregon may not be the Oregon of old, it has been snake-bitten on more than a couple of occasions so far this year.
The Ducks are certainly looking better than they did back in September, and a big reason for that is a switch at quarterback.
True freshman Justin Herbert took over under center after Montana State graduate transfer Dakota Prukop lost his job at the start of October, and the offense has kicked into high gear ever since. Herbert, a Eugene native, has scored nine total touchdowns in just two starts and threw for over 250 yards on Friday night in Berkeley.
“I am really impressed,” Graham said when asked about Herbert. “He’s got great arm talent and can run and extend plays really well. He is very mature for a young quarterback and I think he’s definitely their guy (going forward).”
Quarterback play has been a big storyline for Arizona State as well, and it appears that another true freshman could be making his first start of the year this weekend in Eugene.
Dillon Sterling-Cole, who came into fall camp fourth on the team’s depth chart, was pressed into action last week against Washington State when starter Manny Wilkins had to leave the game with an apparent shoulder injury. With Wilkins questionable to play on Saturday, Sterling-Cole could be primed to to get that initial start under his belt.
Wide receiver Tim White says that while the freshman struggled with some easier balls against the Cougars, those problems are being worked out on the practice field this week.
“He has a cannon, it’s just all about controlling it,” said White on Tuesday. “He is still learning and going through the process, but I feel good with him and anybody else back there. The more reps he gets, the more in tune he will be with the receivers.”
Making life tougher on Sterling-Cole, White, and the rest of the Sun Devil offense will be the always-rowdy Autzen Stadium crowd. While attendance numbers have naturally been down this season for the Ducks, the coaching staff is taking no half measures when getting ready for the atmosphere they’ll face.
“Our offense went inside (the practice facility) for a little bit and worked some crowd noise in,” Graham said. “This will be the loudest place we're going to play at so we are preparing for that.”
It might be easy to dismiss Oregon as a two-win team with a lame duck head coach, but as a team that has lost three of their last four in their own right, the Maroon and Gold can’t afford to take the Ducks lightly.
With Halloween right around the corner, this matchup provides more than a scare for the road-weary Sun Devils.