Sun Devils, controlling Pac-12 South destiny, head to Eugene
Not too long ago, there was talk of Arizona State missing out on bowl season. Following ASU’s third win in a row, that concern has dissipated.
Last Saturday, the Sun Devils upended UCLA in their last home game of the season. With the win, ASU is now 6-4 (4-3 Pac-12) with two road games outstanding.
The scenario is simple — if ASU wins out, it clinches the Pac-12 South. If the Sun Devils lose to Oregon of the next two, they would need significant help to reach the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Either way, this Saturday’s test against Oregon is huge for the Sun Devils’ potential bowl pairings. Most recently, the Ducks were taken down on the road by an injury-plagued Utah team.
What: Arizona State vs. Oregon
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Merlin Robertson’s suspension
ASU’s leader in sacks, Merlin Robertson, will miss the first half of Saturday’s game. He was ejected in the second half of the UCLA game for targeting, and by rule, if a player is called for targeting in the second half, he misses the first half of the subsequent game.
Without Robertson, the Sun Devils were still able to get the job done against the Bruins. The run defense was excellent, and players like defensive lineman Tyler Johnson, who posted two sacks, stepped up and applied much-needed pressure.
In multiple games this year, Robertson has been the defense’s x-factor. Against Michigan State, he was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week, and several weeks later, he was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week against Utah.
Robertson leads the team in sacks (5.0) and tackles for loss (8.5), and he is also second on the team in total tackles (66).
“We’ll have some players that we’ll rotate in, and we’ll feel good about the guys that are in the football game,” ASU head coach Herm Edwards said. “But when you lose a player of [Robertson’s] magnitude… we know how he can play football.”
Is CJ Verdell healthy?
In Oregon’s 32-25 loss to Utah, running back CJ Verdell left the game with a neck injury. Prior to exiting, Verdell had struggled rushing for just 28 yards on 11 carries.
The freshman has been a pivotal piece for the Ducks this year. In 10 games, he’s run for 718 yards and five touchdowns, and he’s also accumulated 251 receiving yards.
According to Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal, Verdell is expected to be ready on Saturday. But if he’s unable to go, Oregon’s offense becomes significantly more one-dimensional.
Will ASU stop Justin Herbert?
Though Verdell has stood out in the backfield this year, quarterback Justin Herbert is the star of this Oregon team.
Expected to be a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Herbert has made the most of his 2.5 years starting behind center for the Ducks. This year alone, he’s thrown for 2,621 yards and 25 touchdowns to just six interceptions.
While yards and touchdowns have been at a premium, something Herbert has struggled with lately is accuracy. Herbert has completed just under 60 percent of his passes this season, which is significantly down from his first two seasons in Eugene.
Without Robertson, Edwards said it’s important to apply pressure to force bad throws against a skilled quarterback like Herbert.
“He’s a very good quarterback,” Edwards said. “You have to not allow the quarterback to feel comfortable in the pocket.
“How do you do that? Try to keep him in the pocket.”
Which road team will show up for ASU?
In ASU’s first three road games, it looked like a totally different team. The offense was inefficient, the defense couldn’t tackle, and there were too many unforced errors.
That changed against USC. At the Coliseum, Arizona State played one of its best games of the season, sparking the Sun Devils’ recent ascension up the Pac-12 South ladder. The team that defeated USC wasn’t the same one that lost to San Diego State, Washington and Colorado.
One of the Pac-12’s wildest atmospheres, Eugene often forces teams to play below their ceilings. If ASU isn’t disciplined, this could be the case Saturday.
Key Sun Devils
QB Manny Wilkins
After a multi-game stretch in which he struggled mightily, quarterback Manny Wilkins seems to be hitting his groove. On senior day, Wilkins did his job, completing 16 of 22 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown.
His lone miscue came in the second quarter when he threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. In a cold and ruckus atmosphere, Wilkins will need to keep his composure and not rush throws to avoid devastating turnovers.
CB Chase Lucas
If Robertson has been the x-factor in the front six, Chase Lucas has been that in the secondary. Lucas recorded his second interception of the season against the Bruins and finished six tackles.
Against one of the Pac-12’s most elite quarterbacks, Lucas will be relied upon heavily to lock down open receivers. Most likely, Lucas will match up against Oregon’s Dillon Mitchell, who’s already reached the 1,000-yard mark this season.
QB Justin Herbert
For the most part, Herbert has built on his success in freshman and sophomore seasons this year. Though his accuracy has decreased from last year, when he completed 68 percent of passes, Herbert’s ability to connect on big plays is evident as its ever been, throwing 25 touchdowns in only 10 games.
Due to high draft stock, this could be Herbert’s last game at Autzen Stadium. Because of this, he will do everything in his power to send the Ducks and their seniors off with a win.
WR Dillon Mitchell
On a team defined by its quarterback play, Mitchell has gone under the radar this season and posted striking numbers. With two games left in the regular season, Mitchell has already exceeded the 1,000-yard mark, and in the process, he’s hit paydirt eight times.
Mitchell, also a junior, is one of the nation’s best route runners, and it will be up to the ASU defensive backs to limit his numbers.