STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/GAME BREAKDOWN
Scouting the run offense: With two games left in the regular season, senior running back Tony Brooks-James has retaken the starting running back role over CJ Verdell. Whether that be because the running game has suffered the past month or because Verdell has been constantly banged up, the spot Brooks-James finds himself in on Saturday is one he must take advantage of.
Brooks-James will enter the game against Arizona State with just 294 rushing yards on 53 attempts. Neither number is among the top-two on the team but it’s his 5.5 yards per carry that gives reason for optimism — the highest number on the roster.
Last week against Utah, the Ducks struggled for much of the first half but when normal starting center Jake Hanson returned to the lineup after the break, Oregon found something.
"Last week’s game ironically was one of our most explosive games per play rate… it was 18-percent of our plays were explosive,” Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo said. “We look at some of the big plays and what we’re doing and how we can find more of those — I think that started to show in the second half on some of those runs and staying with it.”
The Ducks will look to carry that momentum against Arizona State, a team ranked ninth in rushing defense in conference play. The Sun Devils surrender an average of 165.1 rushing yards per game in the Pac-12, giving up 4.2 yards per carry.
Arizona State is young on defense as its top-three players in tackles for loss are all freshmen.
“They present really big defensive lineman… quite a few big linebackers.” freshman running back Travis Dye said. “But I feel like we’re faster — I feel like we can get around the edge faster than them, so we’ll be alright.”
Linebacker Merlin Robertson is one of the best young linebackers in the country, racking up 66 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss on the season. Listed at 6-foot-3, 235-pounds, Robertson is an athletic freak, showing great burst to get through the line of scrimmage but also the lateral quickness to stay on top of offensive linemen and not get pinned down.
Where the Sun Devils are in trouble is that Robertson will miss the first half of Saturday’s game after being ejected for targeting in the second half of last week’s matchup with UCLA.
“When you lose a player of his magnitude… he's going to obviously earn some accolades when this season is over, being a freshman and some of the numbers this kid has put up,” Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards said.
Freshman defensive end Tyler Johnson has also played well for the Sun Devils this year, racking up 28 tackles and seven tackles for loss. He does a good job of setting the edge and forcing ball carriers back to the middle of the pack.
“He's been a fabulous player… he's starting to grow up,” Edwards said of Johnson. “He's a force on defense for us… he's another young player and that's good for us."
Oregon’s success on offense starts and ends with running the ball. If the Ducks can’t get the running game going in a consistent and positive way, it typically spells bad news as a whole. But, when Oregon has been on the winning side of games, it’s because the running game averages over 45 rushing attempts per game, providing great balance and leaving opposing defenses unable to key on one aspect.