Oregon State (6-1, 4-1) squares off with Arizona State in an important Pac-12 matchup Saturday night at Reser Stadium. The Beavers have won three games in a row at home over the Sun Devils, the last two by a combined five points. So, this should be a close, hard-fought affair in Corvallis. Here are five things the Beavers must do to beat the Sun Devils and earn their seventh win in eight games.
1. Give Vaz An Opportunity To Succeed: The numbers explain why Mike Riley decided to start Cody Vaz at quarterback instead of Sean Mannion. In his two starts against BYU and Utah, Vaz completed 36-of-58 passes for 506 yards and three touchdowns. If you add his 7-of-11 performance against Washington into the mix, Vaz has completed 43 of his last 69 passes (62.3 percent) for 603 yards and four touchdowns. Mannion, meanwhile, hit 43-of-76 passes (56.5 percent) for 491 yards in the two games against Apple Cup rivals Washington State and Washington.
Vaz is averaging 8.74 yards per pass attempt, while Mannion is averaging 6.46 yards, so the passing game has been more productive with Vaz. But the differences between the two quarterbacks extend beyond passing statistics.
In the two games Vaz started at quarterback, the Beavers were plus-7 in turnover margin, while OSU is minus-1 in Mannion's last two starts (Washington St and Washington) with seven turnovers (committed by the OSU offense, including a pair of costly interceptions in the fourth quarter when the score was tied. So, when Riley talks about "integrity of the competition," that's what he is referring to.
In addition to turnover margin, red zone efficiency with Vaz directing the offense has been better than with Mannion in his last two starts. In the BYU and Utah games, the Beavers penetrated the red zone a total of eight times and scored seven touchdowns (87.5 TD pct). Against Washington State and Washington, OSU was just 2-for-8 (25.0 TD pct) in the red zone in terms of scoring touchdowns.
Having Markus Wheaton on the field will help, certainly, but he's not 100 percent guaranteed to play with the concussion. But you know he wants to play and help his inexperienced quarterback. Wheaton had a career day against Arizona State last season with a career-high 11 catches for 116 yards.
So, the game plan for Oregon State with Vaz at quarterbacks is simple: don't turn the ball over, run the ball (see No. 2), design pass plays Vaz is able to complete, execute in the red zone and minimize mistakes.
2. Run The Football: Arizona State is hot-and-cold on defense. The Sun Devils possess the best pass defense in the Pac-12 (148.4 yards per game), but at the same time they have one of the worst run defenses in the country (81st nationally; 173.63 ypg), as seen in the last two games when they've been shredded by Oregon (406 yards) and UCLA (212) on the ground. Thus, the Beavers should be able to make amends for last week when they somehow failed to make a concerted effort to run the ball at Washington (23 carries?).
Storm Woods, of course, emerged from the Washington loss with an assortment of ailments, but expects to play against Arizona State. He remains the Beavers' best hope for success on the ground, accumulating 58.9 percent of OSU's rushing yardage (558 of 947 yards) and 50.2 percent of the carries (117 of 233). Since gashing Arizona for a career high 161 yards (5.5 yards per attempt), Woods has averaged 61.8 yards and 4.3 yards per rush in four games (247 yards).
How important is successfully running the ball? The Beavers have won 25 of their last 29 games (86 percent) when an OSU ball carrier reaches the century mark. As long as they can run the football (and make an effort to do so), Oregon State should be able to put together some long drives and keep the high-scoring Arizona State offense on the sidelines. In the first seven games. OSU has 18 scoring drives of 74 or more yards, nine drives of 80-plus yards, a major reason the Beavers are tied with Utah for the highest average time of possession (32:38).
3. Keep The Arizona Defensive Front Out Of The Backfield: Besides playing solid pass defense, the Sun Devils' aggressive front seven has exhibited the ability to penetrate into the backfield and harass or tackle the opposing player with the ball. They have 33 sacks (tied for first in Pac-12) and 75 tackles for loss (317 total yards), an average of 9.4 TFL per game, which ranks second nationally behind Stanford. Three ASU players have already reached double digits in TFL. Over 37 percent of the plays run by opposing offenses this season have not resulted in positive yardage, a staggering figure.
The pressure up front has bolstered the secondary as seen by the 11 interceptions and 31 pass breakups. Oregon State might have caught a break, though, since ASU's outstanding defensive tackle Will Sutton (Pac-12 leader in sacks with 8.5; 14.0 TFL) is questionable with a bone bruise in his knee. Following Wednesday's practice, ASU coach Todd Graham said he was confident Sutton would play.
If he does, he will bring another dimension to the Sun Devils defensive front, and force the OSU offensive line to account for him on every play. But OSU must be careful. Arizona State hopes the Beavers pay so much attention to the dangerous Sutton that they forget about outside linebacker Chris Young, who has 13.5 TFL among his 54 total tackles (6.8 per game).
4. Defend The Intermediate Pass Routes: Arizona State's top three pass catchers are a tight end (Chris Coyle with 38 receptions) and a pair of running backs in D.J. Foster (29) and Marion Grice (22). That trio has combined for 89 receptions for 1,215 yards and 12 touchdowns. Evidently, they know how to get open and sidestep tacklers after they catch the ball. Coyle is second nationally in receptions per game by a tight end (4.75). He had 10 catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns against Illinois.
Besides looking frequently for Coyle, ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly loves throwing to the running backs circling out of the backfield. Overall, ASU running backs have accounted for 35.7 percent of the Sun Devils' total receiving yards. OSU must watch out for the potentially explosive Foster, a true freshman that has lived up the hype so far. He leads ASU in rushing (371 yards) and all-purpose yards (825).
Because Arizona State doesn't appear to have elite outside receiver on the roster, this is a contest Jordan Poyer, selected as one of 15 semifinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award (nation's top defensive back), could thrive with his ball-hawking style.
5. Exploit The Home Field Advantage By Starting Quickly: It should be a boisterous atmosphere at Reser Stadium on Saturday night. What's the worst case scenario for the Beavers? Arizona State controlling play early, jumping out to an early lead and taking the crowd out of the game. The Beavers have allowed the fewest first quarter points in the Pac-12 this season (10) while scoring 34 points themselves. Contrastly, Arizona State has allowed 46 points in the first quarter.
Thirty-six of those points (78.3 percent) have come in the last two games. Oregon ripped off 22 points in the opening 15 minutes on Oct. 18, while UCLA tallied 14 points. If Oregon State is able to grab an early lead, it should allow Vaz and the Beavers to settle into a groove and play mistake-free football, which has been the trademark of the OSU offense whenever Vaz is calling signals.