Come Saturday night, when Arizona State lines up on the offensive side of the ball, the Ducks better be ready.
The Sun Devils (6-4, 4-3 Pac-12) will trot out threats at each of the major skill positions when they take the field.
Directing the offense is Manny Wilkins, a dual-threat quarterback with a rocket of an arm. When he hands the ball off, it’s to Eno Benjamin, the Pac-12’s leading rusher. And when Wilkins decides to air it out, he’ll be throwing it to the most NFL-ready college wide receiver in N’Keal Harry.
What makes Arizona State so difficult to defend is their ability to have playmakers all over the field who’ve proven to take over games when needed.
According to Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal, Wilkins might be the most improved quarterback in the conference since he came to Oregon two years ago. Wilkins, who possess a great arm, has shown improved decision-making this year. He utilizes his weapons well and also shows the ability to run when needed, often using his legs to keep plays alive.
“Manny Wilkins, his development as a quarterback for two straight years is incredible… he makes the right decisions, and the ball's out quick,” Cristobal said. “I think he probably doesn't get enough credit for being a physical guy, too — when he runs the ball, he doesn't hesitate to run you over when he has to and throw his body around recklessly.”
On the season, Wilkins has thrown for 2,449 yards and 16 touchdowns to just four interceptions. Not only is he accurate, completing 65.2-percent of his passes, he has rushed for 371 yards and six scores, making him Arizona State’s second-leading rusher.
Benjamin entered the season as the most unknown of the three players, but he’s quickly emerging as a household name. His 1,295 rushing yards is a single-season record for the Sun Devils, but it’s the way he’s gone about as to why’s been so impressive. His ability to run both inside and out of the tackles, either packing power behind his 201-pound frame or outrunning linebackers to the edges.
"He's a big, strong physical hard runner," linebacker Troy Dye said. "Athletic, great vision — probably one of the top running backs in the Pac-12."
Finally, there’s Harry, the "massive" thorn in Oregon’s side. In two games against the Ducks, Harry has 10 catches for 208 yards and two scores, showing off a combination of skills and natural instincts that could see him be the first wide receiver drafted in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Listed at 6-foot-4, 213-pounds, Harry is a special talent who is not only more physical than opposing defensive backs, he has the ability to outrun them as well. A matchup nightmare, Harry has been torching secondaries all season long, 62 catches for 928 yards and nine scores.
“When you’re that big and that fast, that really is a different dynamic,” Cristobal said of Harry. It’s a different type of athlete that makes tackling a lot harder… getting hands on someone like that is a lot harder… trying to play to the ball when he’s trying to high point it, it’s a lot more difficult.”
There’s no easy way to slow down this offense as the Sun Devils average 30.4 points per game in conference play, third-best in the Pac-12. If they do have a weakness, it’s that they rely on these three players too much, sometimes making them predictable and therefore, easy to beat.
For Oregon, the Ducks will have to find a way slow down at least one aspect of the Arizona State attack, whether it be passing or running.
Containing Harry, even when double-teamed, is such a tough thing to do because the Sun Devils have other weapons at their disposal. That’s why I think the Ducks should try to stop Benjamin and keep a spy on Wilkins, refusing to let him out on the edges and keep him contained.
“At the end of the day we know that it's our job to come and try to set edges and try to fill gaps,” Oregon linebacker Lamar Winston Jr. said. “It's a mentality and it's a physicality aspect and making sure that we continue to stay strict on our X’s and O’s, that's all we're trying to do.”
The athleticism of Dye is the perfect complement to take out Wilkins on the ground while the improved play of nose tackle Jordon Scott — who vowed to do so — would go a long way into containing Benjamin.
"We've got to play better, certainly. We've given up too many yards and they've got one of the best backs in the conference, if not the best," Oregon defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt said. "We got to tackle better, we got to get off blocks and we got to get (people) to the ball."
Even with his improved decision-making, Wilkins is still susceptible to forcing too many throws with his arm, particularly if the running game is struggling. This allows the possibilities of Oregon’s ball-hawking secondary to make a play. Jevon Holland and Ugochukwu Amadi have a combined seven interceptions while defensive back Deommodore Lenoir has three of his own as well.
Stopping Arizona State on offense has been nearly impossible in Pac-12 play, but that’s why containing one major aspect could pay huge dividends in the end for the Ducks.