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Oregon vs. ASU: Sun Devils look to upset retooled Ducks in Pac-12 opener

Conference play should prove extremely challenging for ASU this season — this weekend is no exception

NCAA Football: San Diego State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona State Sun Devils come in to Saturday’s Pac-12 conference opener as huge underdogs at home to the Oregon Ducks, due in large part to the program’s recent performance and the differing trajectories of the two teams.

The Ducks are 3-0 after impressive victories over Southern Utah, Nebraska and Wyoming and seem to be firing on all cylinders on both sides of the ball, looking to regain the identity of a team that became a national powerhouse during its run to the College Football Playoff during the 2014 campaign.

The Sun Devils? Not so much.

Arizona State is 1-8 across its last nine games including a six-game skid to close out the 2016-17 season. While redshirt junior quarterback Manny Wilkins has developed into an extremely-efficient, turnover-free leader of a Sun Devil offense that continues to create more receiving options every week, ASU has other problems that have severely limited its ceiling so far.

The offensive line can’t generate any sort of time for the run game to develop, the secondary has looked as poor as it has during the last two seasons and the Sun Devils continue to allow huge plays to gash them on the defensive side of the ball.

These struggles have led ASU to its first 1-2 start since 1999 and are a large reason why the Devils are 14-point underdogs Saturday. Still though, there are some interesting things to consider in this matchup.

The Ducks play a very aggressive brand of defense when it comes to man-to-man coverage in the secondary. They press high up on the line and play “scrappy” while the play develops, even letting teams beat them over the top as long as they can get hands on them early and disrupt the route.

This is a situation that ASU can flourish in, as three different Arizona State receivers have tallied 100-plus yard reception games. Sophomore N’Keal Harry is as tough as any receiver in the country to cover, Kyle Williams has developed into a dangerous red-zone target and Frank Darby continues to be a viable deep threat. ASU will likely challenge its receivers to overpower the physicality of Oregon’s young cornerbacks by opening space up down the field, giving Wilkins many chances to show off his rejuvenated deep ball.

Another aspect of Taggart’s program that the Devils will look to exploit is the Ducks lack of offensive consistency, as Oregon has scored just seven points across its last four quarters. Often UO gets off to a quick start and can appear unstoppable, yet struggles to keep their foot on the pedal for an entire contest. If the Devils defense can put up a respectable performance in the first half and the offense keeps them in it, the second half of Saturday’s game could be up for grabs.

However, the Sun Devils will be missing a key piece of their defensive unit Saturday as senior linebacker Koron Crump continues to sit out with a knee injury he sustained against Texas Tech. This is especially troubling for ASU if you consider the two strengths of the Oregon offense: senior running back Royce Freeman and an experienced offensive line.

With Crump out, Arizona State is going to struggle mightily to contain Freeman and put adequate pressure on sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert. If Arizona Western transfer and first time starter Abraham Thompson isn’t the fill-in the Devils are looking for, ASU’s defensive unit will be in for a long night.

The Ducks are highly-favored in the conference opener, but there are a few interesting components of Saturday’s matchup that could possibly change the perceived outcome. The Devils will need to alleviate the loss of Crump, beat the Oregon secondary over the top and put together a strong performance in the second half to try and avoid missing out on their first conference win since last October.