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September 29, 2006

Oregon preview

Arizona State (3-1; 0-1) will attempt to put a difficult Pac-10 opening 49-21 loss on the road at Cal behind it and rebound strongly with a big win over the No. 12 Oregon Ducks (3-0; 1-0) on Saturday, in a game played on Frank Kush Field at Sun Devil Stadium. The 12:30 p.m. game will be televised on ABC.

The Sun Devils lead the all-time series 16-10 but last season the Ducks came to Tempe and easily won, 31-17. ASU had no answer for the versatility of the Oregon offense and not enough of an emotional response one week after a close, disappointing home loss to USC.

This week's contest shapes up in a similar fashion, with the Sun Devils looking to rebound after a particularly difficult Pac-10 loss. It is a critically important Pac-10 home opener, considering it's a game that is sandwiched in the schedule in between the Cal game and a road game at USC, which comes on Oct. 14, after a bye week.

A loss in this game would run ASU's record to 0-2 in Pac-10 play with arguably its toughest game of the season to follow, at which point an 0-3 start to the season's conference slate would become likely.

Oregon is coming off of its bye week, which means the team had an extra week to prepare for the Sun Devils, as well as recover from a controversial game against Oklahoma, which was ostensibly decided by a mistake made by the officiating crew/instant replay official in the game's final 1:12 seconds. The Ducks were incorrectly given the ball following an on-side kick, and proceeded to score the game-winning touchdown with 46 seconds left, the final score being 34-33.

6-foot-4, 196 pound junior dual-thread quarterback Dennis Dixon is the trigger-man of the Ducks' spread offense, a system that is new to the program and with very good results to this point in the season. Dixon is very capable as a passer or runner and he's well-protected by an offensive line that has given up just one sack thus far, which didn't come until the team's third game of the season.

Arizona State had a difficult enough time keeping track of quarterback Kellen Clemens last season, when Clemens rushed for a net of 47 yards and kept the Sun Devils' back seven frozen for most of the game, and Dixon is even more of a threat to take off with the football. And a lot of it will be by design.

The Sun Devil defense is tied at No. 1 nationally in sacks with 19, just three shy of their total from the 2005 season, but they managed just one sack against Cal and Oregon figures to be equally capable of protecting its quarterback, and perhaps more so. Keeping Dixon inside the tackle box and forcing him to beat ASU by throwing the ball vertically is one critical component in this matchup.

That isn't to suggest that Dixon won't be successful throwing the football. He's a capable passer and has some big time weapons at his disposal, especially 6-foot-5, 243 pound monster wide receiver Jaison Williams, who has caught 18 balls for 325 yards and two touchdowns this season. Williams torched the Oklahoma defensive backfield for 177 yards on nine catches and one touchdown and he'll be a difficult matchup for ASU due to his size and athleticism.

On the ground, the Ducks feature one of the premier running backs in the conference in sophomore Jonathan Stewart, a 5-foot-11, 234-pounder who carried the ball 23 times for 144 yards and one touchdown against the Sooners.

Put it all together and the Ducks have an offensive skill upside that appears to be every bit as talented as the one that gave ASU trouble at times last week at Cal, but the Sun Devils have given up just seven points defensively in the second half all season and this is an opportunity to have a big performance in front of 60,000 plus at home.

The true storyline of this game however, will be what happens with the Sun Devil offense. Last week we say JUCO transfer Ryan Torain emerge as a potential star running back, when he carried the ball 24 times for 191 yards, with Keegan Herring not playing but one snap due to a muscle strain suffered in practice earlier in the week.

With sophomore quarterback Rudy Carpenter struggling of late, we wouldn't be surprised to see the Sun Devils go heavy with the run, especially early in the game as it attempts to establish an offensive rhythm. Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson, one of the top players at the position nationally, had 211 yards on the ground against the Ducks, so there is an opportunity there to be had.

If the Sun Devils can establish the run game, it will open up the play-action that the team has been desperately looking to help get the passing game on track. Oregon has a pair of redshirt freshmen cornerbacks that the Sun Devils will attempt to exploit, though the group of safeties the team puts on the field is a veteran, solid unit.

On special teams, Oregon has a potentially dangerous return game featuring Stewart, who has a 39-yard kick return average on just two attempts, and fellow tailback Jeremiah Johnson, who is averaging 15.5 yards per kick return. Johnson is the team's primary punt returner, and he's brought back nine kicks for an average of 12.8 yards.


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