After starting 5-1, the Arizona State football team looked to be on a roll with the possibility of competing with USC for the Pac-12 South title just two weeks ago. But after dropping consecutive games against Oregon and UCLA, ASU's trip to Corvallis this weekend has turned into a must-win situation if they have any hope of keeping their conference title hopes alive.
Standing in their way will be the Oregon State Beavers, ranked 11th in this week's BCS poll. After a surprisingly fast start to their season, the Beavers dropped their first game of 2012 last week to Washington and will most certainly be looking to prove their first bump in the road was a fluke.
With both teams looking for a key win this week, ASU vs. OSU could turn into the conference's marquee matchup of the week, outside of Oregon vs. USC, of course.
Here's what to watch for in Saturday's pivotal Pac-12 clash...
Will Sutton - The Sun Devils will most likely have their star defensive end back, but he still hasn't fully recovered from the knee injury he sustained against Oregon. If he's even half the pass rusher he was in ASU's first six games, Oregon State will be in for a long night. The Beaver's o-line is average at best and should have its hands full if Sutton performs likes his old self. With Carl Bradford and Junior Onyeali also breathing down their necks, the Sun Devils' defensive line could be the deciding factor in Saturday night's game.
Vaz back in at QB - After Sean Mannion's poor performance -- four interceptions -- against Washington last week, OSU head coach Mike Riley made the decision to bring back Cody Vaz. In the two games Vaz started in place of Mannion, he did not turn the ball over once. After getting put back in last week's game against Washington, Vaz's pinpoint accuracy helped lead the Beavers to a near-comeback victory. With the Sun Devils relying heavily on forcing the opposing quarterback to turn the ball over, they will have to find a way to force Vaz out of his comfort zone and disrupt the Beavers' pass-first offense. If not, the junior quarterback will be sure to take advantage of the Sun Devils' secondary -- whose own poor performance last week played a huge factor in UCLA's thrilling victory in Tempe.
ASU's secondary vs. OSU wide receivers - Oregon State has one of, if not, the best wide receiver combinations in the country. Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks have both emerged as dynamic playmakers capable of turning any reception into a touchdown. With Vaz returning, Wheaton and Cooks should expect a ton of passes headed their way -- a sign that isn't good news for opposing secondaries. The duo has already combined for 94 receptions, which is more than half their team's total number of catches. In short, ASU cornerbacks Osahon Irabor and Deveron Carr don't need to speculate if the ball will be headed their way Saturday. It most certainly will. If they want to want to remain competitive against the Beavers' star wideouts, the UCLA game better become a distant memory sooner rather than later. Otherwise, Vaz and his dynamic receivers will have a field day through the air.
Oregon State's balanced defense - The Beavers boast one of the best defensive linemen in the nation in defensive end Scott Crichton. He has already brought down opposing quarterbacks eight times this season. With ASU relying heavily on the pass to move the chains, Crichton will face a lot of double-team coverages from the Sun Devils' defense. Nonetheless, expect him to burst through the line at some point -- Crichton's got 14 sacks in his last 18 games. But how often might be the key to the game. The OSU defense is also ranked No. 5 in the nation in rush defense. Led by tackles Castro Masaniai and Andrew Seumalo, the Sun Devils' backfield will have a tough time finding a hole at the line of scrimmage. If ASU running back D.J. Foster can't show the same play-making ability he did last week, the entire ASU offense will feel the effects.
Taylor Kelly continues impressive season - The ASU quarterback had a great game against UCLA, despite the fact that his team lost. Outside of an interception to close the first half, the offense was extremely efficient en route to putting up 43 points and 535 total yards. If Kelly can take advantage of an OSU secondary without star cornerback Jordan Poyer, he should have no problem replicating the numbers he put up against the Bruins. Poyer is unlikely to play against ASU after suffering a knee injury against Washington.
Outlook - This could turn into another close shootout for an ASU squad in desperate need of win this week. If Kelly can take advantage of a weak OSU secondary and Sutton shows he's close to the player he was before his injury, the Sun Devils will have a very strong chance to leave Corvallis with the upset win.