Streaking Sun Devils face stumbling Beavers
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP)
The schedule makers have not done Arizona State any favors in the Sun Devils' bid to win the Pac-12 South.
For the third straight week, the 21st-ranked Sun Devils will be facing a team coming off its bye week. Arizona State managed to win the first two, but facing Oregon State and its juggernaut offense after a week off will not be a lot of fun.
''I'd be a liar if I told you it didn't bother me,'' Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. ''You start over-thinking a little bit. I wish that wasn't like that. I think it should be equal. Obviously, you can't do anything about scheduling. But you can't worry about things you can't control.''
The Sun Devils can't control the schedule, but they are in control of the Pac-12 South.
Since losing to Stanford and a nonconference loss to Notre Dame, Arizona State (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12) has won four straight and is a game ahead of UCLA and Southern California in the South.
To finish off their goal of playing for the Pac-12 championship, the Sun Devils have to close out a tough final stretch of the schedule.
After facing the Beavers on Saturday night, Arizona State goes on the road against UCLA and closes out the season against rival Arizona.
''I think we're hitting our stride,'' Graham said. ''And we need to be.''
Oregon State (6-3, 4-2 Pac-12) has hit a bit of a rough patch following a six-game winning streak.
Coming off consecutive blowout wins over Colorado, Washington State and California, the Beavers lost 20-12 to Stanford and were beat 31-14 last week by USC. Both those loses were in Corvallis, adding to the frustration.
''It's disappointing because they had a lot at stake the last two weeks and I know this is hard for them,'' Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. ''Particularly in this last game, we didn't play as well as we could have or as smart as we could have and it cost us.''
Here's five things to look for as the Beavers try to get back on track and the Sun Devils try to close in on the Pac-12 South title:
GET COOKIN: Graham called Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks the best overall player he's seen this season, but the Beavers have had trouble getting him the ball the past two games. Cooks still leads the nation in receptions, yards and yards per game, and his 14 touchdowns are second. But over the past two games, he had 168 yards combined, which is 18 yards above his single-game average. Riley has taken the blame for the drop in production and spent the bye week devising more ways to get him the ball.
RUNNIN' WITH THE DEVILS: Graham's up-tempo offense has produced some good passing numbers - quarterback Taylor Kelly throws for nearly 300 yards per game - but the run game has been what's boosted the Sun Devils during their winning streak. Arizona State has averaged 256 yards during the four-game winning streak and has 1,671, which is already its fourth-highest total in the past 25 years.
SPUTTERING OFFENSE: Oregon State has had one of the nation's most prolific offenses most of the season and quarterback Sean Mannion has been superb, leading the nation in passing yards. But over the past two games, the Beavers sputtered against the physical defenses of Stanford and USC, managing 288 yards against the Cardinal and 369 vs. the Trojans. Mannion also threw three interceptions against USC. The Beavers face another good defensive team in Arizona State, but at least had an extra week to prepare.
FINDING STRONG: Receiver Jaelen Strong had been one of the best surprises for Arizona State early in the season, having an immediate impact despite arriving on campus just before the start of fall practice. The junior college transfer used his size - 6-foot-4, 205 pounds - and athletic ability to give the Sun Devils a huge boost, stringing together five straight 100-yard games while producing numerous big plays. A series of injuries, notably a sprained ankle against Washington on Oct. 19, has slowed Strong down, limiting him to 50 combined yards the past three games. He said this week that he's healthy and the Sun Devils are hoping to get more production from him.
DESERT TROUBLES: Oregon State has dominated the series with Arizona State, winning four of the past five games, including 36-26 in Corvallis last season. But when it comes to playing at Sun Devil Stadium, the Beavers haven't had much luck. Arizona State is 19-4 against Oregon State at home in the series that dates to 1961 and has won 18 of the past 19 meetings. The Beavers' lone win in that string was at least recent; they beat Arizona State 28-17 in 2009 to end a 16-game losing streak in the desert.