November 3, 2007

ASU vs. Oregon: Keys to the game

Over the years many critics of college football's post-season format have relentlessly lobbied for a playoff system to be installed. But with Saturday's upcoming marquee matchup of the No. 4 and No. 5 ranked BCS programs serving as an unofficial national championship knockout game, those who are craving college playoffs will be practically watching one inside of the intense atmosphere of Autzen Stadium.

Playoffs? We're talking about playoffs? Yes we are, and more importantly in this feature we are talking about some of the key individual matchups that will help decide the eventual outcome.

When ASU has the ball the biggest matchups are:

ASU junior quarterback Rudy Carpenter vs. Oregon junior defensive end Nick Reed.

When Carpenter has been pressured in the pocket this year most of the intruding defenders have come off the edge or via the blitz. This week, ASU faces one of the best pass-rushing ends in the Pac-10 in Oregon's Reed. The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder has totaled 7.5 sacks in eight games and will present a formidable pass-rushing threat for the Sun Devils to contain. It's up to the pocket-awareness of Carpenter to off-set any pass-protection issues against Reed.

Last week against the pressure of the California Golden Bears, Carpenter was able to step up in the pocket avoiding the rush and was able deliver his passes down the field.

Adding to the importance of the matchup is the issue of Carpenter being hampered this week at practice with a sprained thumb that he sustained in last week's victory. Carpenter's scrambling skills will be more important than ever in helping him protect his injured digit against the never-ending motor that Reed posses in his pass-rush. Even with ASU's offensive line showing signs of improvement, limiting Reed to a quiet night statistically will be key in picking up a win.

ASU junior running back Keegan Herring vs. Oregon junior rover linebacker Jerome Boyd.

When Herring took over the starting tailback position for injured Ryan Torain last weekend against Cal, the ASU rushing attack did not lose its edge. With coach Dennis Erickson stressing the importance of pounding the rock with a physical gameplan, the Sun Devils have continued their success on the ground primarily in the second half due to the combination of Herring and Dimitri Nance.

While certainly running between the tackles remains to be one of the major keys to victory in any game, Herring's natural big-play ability should not go unnoticed, as he is the ultimate ex-factor for ASU against a formidable Oregon defense. Boyd leads the Ducks front-seven in tackles with 45 on the season and he is the likeliest second level defender to get his hands on Herring, who excels on breaking runs to the outside. If Oregon wants to control the Sun Devils' big-play capability, Boyd and his teammates can't afford to let up on any play. Just ask Cal's defense who were victimized by Herring's ridiculous 13-yard run on a broken play last week.

ASU starting wide receivers: junior Michael Jones, sophomore Chris McGaha, and sophomore Kyle Williams vs. Oregon's secondary: junior cornerback Patrick Chung, sophomore cornerback Walter Thurmond and senior safety Matthew Harper.

As ASU has gotten better over the course of all eight games this season, the receiving corps has arguably been the most improving position group amongst the team. To further illustrate the strides the receivers have made in eight games, Jones leads the group with 432 yards and five touchdowns -- numbers which already double his production from last season when he led all receivers on the team in almost every major statistical category.

Besides Jones stepping up, sophomores McGaha and Williams have also been reliable for Carpenter this season. McGaha leads the team with 27 receptions, and Williams is also tied for the team lead in touchdown catches.

With the group rotating as many as five players in multiple formations at a time it is up to Oregon's secondary to control the talented receivers from ASU, especially Jones, McGaha and Williams.

The Ducks figure to do so with two solid corners, who are their two leading tacklers. Chung leads the team with 73 tackles on the season, and Thurmond is one behind with 72. Harper is another big play-maker in the secondary, as he leads the team with three interceptions. While their defensive backs have shown the ability to support the run as well as limit their receivers yards after the catch, it's usually not a good sign to have members of the secondary leading your team in tackles. And when you throw in the fact that Oregon runs a similar defense to California schematically, ASU's wideouts must be going into the came confident that their option-routes will lead to success.

When Oregon has the ball the biggest matchups of the game are:

Oregon senior quarterback Dennis Dixon vs. ASU defensive ends: junior Luis Vasquez and sophomore Dexter Davis.

If you were to pick the two players that have the best chance to derail Dixon's pursuit of a Heisman it would probably be ASU's two standout defensive ends, Vasquez and Davis. Vasquez leads all Sun Devil defensive linemen with 24 tackles, and he seems to be be in the opposing teams backfield more and more every week. Now that he is 100 percent after starting the season with an ankle injury, Vasquez is second behind Davis with 3.5 sacks. On the other side of the line, Davis, who leads the team with 6.5 sacks will also be responsible for putting pressure on Dixon. Easier said than done.

Dixon nearly averages 300 yards of total offense per game, rushing for eight touchdowns and throwing for 16. Largely because of Dixon, Oregon is the highest scoring team in the conference, averaging over 43 points per game. It's imperative for the Sun Devil defenses to limit the space in which Dixon can operate. That means, Vasquez and Davis must do a good job of finishing tackles and not letting the slippery Dixon get out of their grips. The two athletic ends present an interesting challenge for the Ducks offense, in that they will be able to run down Dixon's option runs as well as provide pressure in typical passing downs.

Oregon junior running back Jonathan Stewart vs. ASU senior outside linebacker Robert James.

Stewart enters this matchup with the Sun Devils having already eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark on the season averaging 130 yards per game and an astounding 6.7 yards per carry. ASU did solid job last week against one of the conferences best backs in California's Justin Forsett, which has to provide some confidence, but Stewart is the best back the team will face all season.

Though Stewart has as many touchdowns, nine, as the Sun Devils' two backs, he still not been able to experience what it's like to be on the other end of a vicious hit from ASU outside linebacker Robert James. Not only is James the team's leading tackler with 69 tackles, but the hard-hitting senior has also shown the ability to defend in space with four interceptions on the season. James leads ASU with eight tackles-for-loss and he will likely be in Oregon's backfield to meet Stewart on a couple of occasions. Stewart's tremendous yardage totals have been aided by Oregon's successful option formations and the mobility of Dixon, but with James' speed, look for the outside runs to be less effective for the Ducks.

Oregon junior wide receiver Jaison Williams vs. ASU senior cornerback Justin Tryon.

Facing a talented receiver is nothing new to Tryon. After having success last week against Cal's DeSean Jackson, limiting him to five catches, Tryon should be much more confident against Oregon's top wideout, Williams. The 6-foot-5, 240 pound junior has used his size as a major advantage, leading to 32 receptions for 518 yards and five touchdowns. Facing the much shorter Tryon, Williams will be looking for the deep ball, as he enters the game averaging 16 yards per catch. It's up to Tryon with the help of his two talented safeties behind him to limit Williams' touches. Tryon has proved to be up to tough challenges this season, with 32 tackles and three interceptions. It's important to not discount the value of being well protected by junior Troy Nolan and his team-leading five interceptions.

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