STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL/GAME BREAKDOWN
Key Matchup:Oregon Rush Offense vs. Arizona State Rush Defense
It’s no secret that Oregon has struggled to run the ball. Whether it’s been the injuries to the offensive line, injuries to the running backs or a combination of other things, the Ducks’ once vaunted rushing offense has been non-existent in the Pac-12.
Since conference play began, Oregon has the No. 7 rushing offense, averaging 153.4 yards per game on 4.11 yards per rush. In their three most recent losses, the Ducks have averaged 86.3 rushing yards per game.
Despite this lack of productivity, offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo still believes in the philosophy of establishing the run to greater offensive success.
“I think establishing the run philosophically is something that we believe we need to do… I think we’ve shown that over the course of games this season that we’ll stick with it,” Arroyo said. "You can’t run away from it. You’ve got to work through it. You can’t just put something out to bay and say you’re done with it. You’ve got to lean on it and continue to do it."
Running back CJ Verdell leads the team in rushing with 715 yards on 151 attempts, although not being named starter until a few games into the season. Freshman Travis Dye has also seen role grow, moving amassing 83 carries for 417 yards on the season — he led the Ducks last week with 66 yards on nine carries.
“Travis, he's a pretty special freshman,” head coach Mario Cristobal said. “Against a team that's really good at defending the run (Utah), he found some good chunk plays — an eight- or nine-yarder, a 17-yarder. He made some guys miss, hit the holes with speed, was patient to the hole and ran with speed and came out through it with some explosiveness.”
Senior Tony Brooks-James is listed at the top of the depth chart for this week. On the season, he only has 294 rushing yards on 53 carries, but his 5.5 yards per carry leads the team. Finally healthy and playing in his final game at Autzen stadium, Brooks-James will look to create some of the magic he had as a sophomore when he ran for 132 yards and one score on nine carries against the Sun Devils.
Why this matchup is important is because Oregon might be able to take advantage of a Sun Devils defense ranked ninth in conference play at stopping the run. They give up 165.14 rushing yards per game with an average 4.22 yards per rush.
Making matters worse for Arizona State is that freshman linebacker Merlin Robertson, arguably the best player on the defense, will miss the first half due to a targeting call/suspension received last week. Robertson, who has 66 tackles on the season, is vital in the Sun Devil run defense, showing great instinct and the physicality needed to make plays.
“When you lose a player of his magnitude, we know how he can play football,” Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards said of Robertson. “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.”
If the Ducks have learned anything over their recent 1-3 skid, it’s that the running game must step up and be successful — helping set up the quarterback Justin Herbert and the passing game is the running game.
Being able to run the ball with success not only keeps pass-rushers from pinning their ears back and rushing at will, it forces defenses to commit more defensive backs to the box, setting themselves up for play-action, a vital part of Oregon’s offense.
The Ducks can no longer rely on Herbert and star wide receiver Dillon Mitchell to be their only source of offense. Verdell, Dye and the offensive line must accept the challenge to be the more physically dominating unit.