ASU riding high but remains focused on Oregon St.
TEMPE, Ariz. — After Arizona State beat Notre Dame and garnered national attention, players this week shrugged off questions about the possibility of a letdown Saturday against Oregon State.
The Sun Devils were unconcerned they’ll lose focus and lose a game they should win.
"Guys have had great focus this week," quarterback Taylor Kelly said. "I haven’t heard anything outside normal business."
Despite the bright spotlight now shining on Tempe, No, 6 ASU remains singular in its focus, blocking out the big picture and will treat Saturday’s game in Corvallis like its biggest of the season.
"It’s all a focus on the mission at hand, and that’s beating Oregon State," coach Todd Graham said. "We’ve approached it like this is the Pac-12 championship. It’s been that way for a while."
This game certainly contains every element of the proverbial "trap game." It comes after a huge win, against a struggling opponent and likely in adverse conditions with temperatures expected to be in the 30s at kickoff. A loss would derail ASU’s shot at the College Football Playoff and muddle the Pac-12 South race, which ASU (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) controls.
But ASU has avoided such traps under Graham, and the coach doesn’t give the concept much credence. Players seem to get the message, even against a team with just one conference win.
"Every team in the Pac-12 can beat anybody," junior safety Jordan Simone said. "If one team doesn’t bring their ‘A’ game, the other team could take it. It’s the Pac-12. This is the most competitive league in college football."
Players certainly are happy to be in the hunt for a spot in the Playoff, no one seems star-struck by the team’s rise to national prominence. Teams of the past might have been caught up in the hype — think 2011 — but this group seems to be handling its five-game winning streak well.
Beating Oregon State (4-5, 1-5), which has lost four straight games including three at home, might seem like a walk in the park, but Graham stressed all week how well coached the Beavers are. Coach Mike Riley’s teams played spoiler plenty of times in the past.
"I have tremendous respect for coach Riley and what they do schematically," Graham said. "You’re not going to beat ’em schematically. You’re going to have to be sound fundamentally and make sure you execute."
Oregon State ranks near the bottom of the Pac-12 in total offense (389.0 yards per game) and scoring offense (26.8 points per game), but Graham still has his concerns about facing the unit led by senior quarterback Sean Mannion.
"They’re different, and they’re going to have good answers to what we’re doing," Graham said. "They’ve got good speed at the receiver position, and they know how to utilize their tight ends. We haven’t played anybody like that.
"By the way, they’ve got a quarterback that will make the perfect pass. He is a guy that throws the ball on the money."
Mannion’s numbers have fallen off since star receiver Brandin Cooks left for the NFL after last season, but he remains one of the Pac-12’s most capable quarterbacks, and ASU knows it. How will the Sun Devils handle him? Same as they’ve done the past two weeks: pressure like crazy.
Defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said ASU blitzed on 62 of 78 (79. 4 percent) defensive plays against Notre Dame and 68 of 78 (87.2 percent) against Utah. Don’t expect them to slow down now.
"This group really feeds off the pressure for whatever reason," Patterson said. "We’ve always pressured but never to the extent we’re doing right now."
That kind of pressure could be key to limiting what Oregon State does with screens and pitches, or it could burn the Sun Devils, so they’ll have to walk a fine line.
The Sun Devils are already walking a fine line when it comes to their goals. They’re not shy about aiming for a Pac-12 title or a national championship, but they know each game they play is a means to that end. While some fans and media might already be looking ahead to a potentially huge showdown with Arizona on Nov. 28, ASU is focused on the present.
"We’ve had a lot of distractions these past couple weeks with the position we’re in, but coach has been preaching all week to keep our eyes and our concentration on Oregon State," junior cornerback Lloyd Carrington said. "That’s the team we’ve got next, and we’re just trying to take it one game at a time so we can achieve our ultimate goals."
Points. Despite Oregon State’s dismal scoring defense, which ranks ninth in the Pac-12 (29.8 points per game), the Beavers own the conference’s No. 2 total defense (384.7 yards per game). Without so many injuries on offense, this team might be a contender in the North. ASU won’t have it easy moving the ball on this defense and will have to take advantage of red zone opportunities to put points on the board.
Pressure. ASU is blitzing more than ever and last week notched a season-high seven sacks and 10 total tackles for loss. The Sun Devils rank fourth in the nation in tackles for loss with 8.1 per game and 19th in sacks with 3.0 per game. If ASU gets enough pressure in Oregon State’s backfield, it could lead to turnovers like the five it did last week.
Penalties. While ASU leads the Pac-12 in fewest penalty yards per game (35.2), Oregon State currently ranks last with 83.6 penalty yards per game. Giving away yards like that against ASU could prove costly.
— ASU holds a 26-13-1 advantage over Oregon State all time but has recently struggled in Corvallis, losing its last four games at Reser Stadium. The Sun Devils last won in Corvallis in 2005.
— ASU has the chance to win its fifth road game of the season for the first time in program history. It already has four road wins for the first time since 1997. More on ASU’s recent success on the road here.
— A win Saturday would give ASU back-to-back seasons of at least nine wins for the first time since 1996 and 1997.