No. 24 Oregon brings balance into Pac-12 opener (Sep 23, 2017)

TEMPE, Ariz. — After almost exactly a year away, No. 24 Oregon is back in the national rankings. The Ducks have given their FBS-shredding offense a defense it can work with.

Now comes the first test of the rest of the year, when Pac-12 Conference play begins Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium with a game against an Arizona State team that is 1-2 and has struggled to make defensive stops.

Oregon (3-0) enters the game ranked second among FBS schools with 609 yards of total offense per game and third with an average of 56 points a game. But it has run those types of numbers before.

Perhaps most significantly, the Ducks have given up only 303 yards per game, tied for 33rd nationally. They held Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, considered a top NFL draft candidate, to 9-of-24 passing for 64 yards in a 49-13 road victory last Saturday.

The Ducks gave up 518.9 yards per game, 126th among 128 teams in the FBS last season, and ranked last in first downs allowed (28.1).

The “O” can stand for obstruction, not just offense.

“That’s something we have to fight against every day — people’s perceptions,” first-year coach Willie Taggart said after a victory over Wyoming last week.

“But they can’t let anyone else define them. They have to define themselves. We know we can play defense. It’s about pride, and playing together. And that’s what we’re seeing.”

That, and blistering starts. Oregon has scored exactly 42 points in the first half in each of its three victories — against Southern Utah, Nebraska and Wyoming — while allowing only 45.

The running game has played a significant role. Senior Royce Freeman has 460 yards rushing and an FBS-high nine rushing touchdowns. His backup, Kani Benoit, has six rushing scores, tied for second in the nation. Freeman had three touchdowns against Wyoming and tied LaMichael James for the school record for career touchdowns (53). Freeman has 785 rushing attempts, the most in school history.

“The first half of all these games is probably what I want our football program to look like,” Taggart said.

“Our challenge each week is to show how well we can play. So far we haven’t shown that yet. We’ve got to continue to get better. It’s great when you can win big and still have a lot to improve on.”

Quarterback Justin Herbert has completed 60 of 83 passes for 897 yards, with five touchdowns and two interceptions. Charles Nelson leads the team with 15 pass receptions for 243 yards and a touchdown, but he is questionable to play after suffering a sprained ankle in the Wyoming game. Taj Griffin replaced him at wide receiver after the injury.

The Ducks are back in the AP poll for the first time since the third week of 2016, dropping out after a defeat at Nebraska that started a five-game losing streak. They have won 10 in a row in the series against ASU, including the last six at Sun Devil Stadium.

Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins leads an offense that is averaging 34 points and 412 yards a game, but defense has been an issue, as it was a season ago. The Sun Devils have given up 37.7 points and 505.3 yards per game.

Texas Tech had 615 yards, 543 passing, in a 52-45 victory over Arizona State last Saturday.

The Sun Devils, who beat New Mexico State in the season opener before losing at home to San Diego State, are off to their worst since 1999.

“Everything starts this week,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “You look at the history (of conference games), it usually comes down to one score.”

Wilkins completed 27 of 41 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions at Texas Tech, when the Sun Devils recovered from an 18-point deficit only to see the Red Raiders go 90 yards for a tiebreaking touchdown in the final minutes.

Wilkins has not thrown an interception in his last 149 pass attempts dating to last season. Wide receiver N’Keal Harry had a career-high 13 receptions for 148 yards and a touchdown against Texas Tech, and the Sun Devils rushed for a season-high 168 yards while welcoming back halfback Demario Richard after starter Kalen Ballage was injured. Ballage will be back.

“We have to play better and coach better,” Graham said.

Senior linebacker Koron Crump, a significant part of the Sun Devils’ defense, suffered a left leg injury in the first half of the Texas Tech game and is considered doubtful, Graham said.