ASU vs. Oregon State: 5 questions

After just barely sneaking out of Salt Lake City with a win, Arizona State faces another high-stakes game this weekend, returning to play at Sun Devil Stadium for the first time in almost a month.

Oregon State comes to Tempe trying to prevent falling into a tailspin after consecutive losses to Stanford and USC. The Beavers, led by national passing leader Sean Mannion and national receiving leader Brandin Cooks, had the benefit of a bye week and will certainly be playing with urgency to bank a win before closing out the season against Washington and Oregon.

The Sun Devils are favored but showed some flaws against Utah last week, and Oregon State might be able to take advantage of some of those. At the same time, ASU’s resilience of late is hard to bet against.’s ASU writer Tyler Lockman and The Oregonian’s Oregon State writer Connor Letourneau report on these teams daily. Here, they break down Saturday’s game via five key questions. Both can be followed on Twitter @Tyler Lockman and @ConnOregonian.

1. Oregon State has one of the Pac-12’s better offenses and a bunch of weapons. ASU has a defense that’s peaking and an offense that’s been spectacular this season. What’s one thing the team you cover does, on either side, that could create the most problems for its opponent this week?

Letourneau: Oregon State has been stellar at winning the turnover battle, a key reason it was able to piece together a six-game winning streak earlier in the season. The Beavers are tied for eighth nationally in turnover margin and ninth with 15 interceptions. As is true in all sports, the team that wins the turnover battle tends to win the game. And Oregon State is no different. Entering its recent two-game skid, the Beavers were 47-9 when committing fewer turnovers than their opponent over their past 119 games. It’ll be interesting to see how that aspect of the game unfolds Saturday since Arizona State seems to have a knack for forcing turnovers as well.

Lockman: At the risk of being too simple, I think it’s just ASU’s ability to move the ball efficiently. It obviously didn’t do so as it usually does last week against Utah, but I think that was partially a product of the loud atmosphere and some adjustment issues when the Utes came out with looks the Sun Devils didn’t expect. I think against a defense like Oregon State’s, there’s a good chance ASU moves the ball at will all game long. This game matches the Pac-12’s best red-zone offense (ASU, which is 49 of 53 on red-zone scoring chances) against the conference’s worst red-zone defense (Oregon State, which has allowed red-zone scores on 26 of 28 opponent chances). However, Oregon State is tied for third in fewest red-zone chances allowed, mitigating that weakness.

2. ASU owns the Pac-12’s top defense and top passing defense. Oregon State ranks ninth in scoring defense and total defense. With two high-powered offenses, will this game be won on the defensive side?

Letourneau: That’s a fair assertion. I think Oregon State’s ability to handle an aggressive ASU front seven will dictate a lot of this game. In their past two outings, the Beavers struggled against blitz-heavy teams. Stanford recorded a mind-boggling eight sacks and 13 tackles for loss en route to a Nov. 1 win, grounding the then-No. 1 aerial assault for the first time this season. The next week, USC seemed to force Sean Mannion out of his rhythm with continuous pressure. Mannion, who had tossed just three interceptions on 391 pass attempts entering that matchup, threw three crucial picks. If the Sun Devils can muscle past Oregon State’s blockers with regularity, they should be able to disrupt a potent passing attack. And any time the Mannion-to-Brandin Cooks connection isn’t humming, it’s tough for Oregon State to pull out a win.

Lockman: Probably. Both teams have very capable scoring offenses. ASU is more well-rounded, with a passing and rushing attack, but Oregon State has a superior passing offense — the nation’s leading passer and receiver will do that. However, ASU’s defense is playing as well as it has all season, and that secondary is starting to look as good as it was last season, when it finished third in the nation in yards allowed. The defensive front is also playing its best football right now, though the Oregon State offensive line should prove a formidable test. The Beavers’ defense obviously isn’t what it was last season and has struggled to replace the players it lost, but I still believe it is talented and capable of limiting ASU. The Sun Devils’ ability to force turnovers, as you mentioned USC doing, could be a huge difference in this game.

3. Oregon State struggled to contain Utah quarterback Travis Wilson as a rusher in the overtime win in Salt Lake City. How much difference will limiting ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly on the ground make in this game?

Letourneau: It will be huge. The Beavers have struggled against mobile quarterbacks in recent years, and this season hasn’t been much different. They were lucky to leave Utah with a win after Wilson rushed for 142 yards and three touchdowns. Two weeks earlier, Eastern Washington’s Vernon Adams helped propel the Eagles to a season-opening upset with 107 rushing yards. So Oregon State understands the importance of limiting Kelly on the ground. In fact, several coaches I’ve spoken with believe he is a faster version of Wilson. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker said he watched film of the Oregon State-Utah game five times over the bye week trying to figure out the best way to contain Kelly. The Beavers likely won’t change much schematically for ASU, but they do plan on having a spy on Kelly much of the game.

Lockman: I think it will have an impact, but I’m not convinced it will matter all that much. Obviously, if you can make a two-dimensional quarterback one-dimensional, that’s a good thing. It would force Kelly to pass more and potentially make a bad decision or two. But it may be a case of pick your poison. Limit Kelly and you may be opening things up for running back Marion Grice. Teams have done it the other way recently, keying on Grice, and Kelly has scored seven touchdowns and rushed for 236 yards (not including sacks) in ASU’s last four games. It’s sort of catch-22 situation unless Oregon State can contain both players. Even if Kelly is forced to pass more, Oregon State has the Pac-12’s eighth-ranked pass defense, so it may not make much difference.

4. Both these teams are hitting critical stretches as the season winds down. ASU has won four straight and controls the Pac-12 South. Oregon State has lost two in a row and needs to rebound. Which team, if either, needs this game more right now?

Letourneau: That’s a tough question. You could make the argument that the stakes are higher for ASU just because it has played better and should be able to make a quality bowl game. But a lot of people around Corvallis believe Oregon State needs to win this contest to have a chance at a decent season. The Beavers, after all, don’t really have a statement victory yet. And though the Sun Devils are a tough matchup, Oregon State did have an extra week to prepare. If the Beavers lose in Tempe, there’s a very good chance a once-promising season could end with a 6-6 record. For many fans, that would be unacceptable.

Lockman: The way I see it, this game is more of a must-win for Oregon State. The Beavers are 6-3 and still have to play Oregon and Washington. The prospect of five straight losses to finish 6-6 is a scary one, so Oregon State needs this game, at least from a momentum standpoint. That said, I think right now ASU needs it more because it does have more at stake. The Sun Devils have a little room for error, given their one game lead in the Pac-12 South, but winning this one would give them a chance to clinch the division the following week in Los Angeles. That’s a much easier way to go about it than crossing their fingers for losses elsewhere and playing UCLA under even greater pressure. A loss this week wouldn’t end ASU’s chances at winning the South, but it would open a few doors ASU would be much rather keep closed. Oregon State may need this win to avoid a potential .500 finish, but with Oregon and Stanford ahead of them, the Beavers are playing for little more than bowl position.

5. Who will win this game, by what score, and why?

Letourneau: (For Connor’s score prediction, check tomorrow.) ASU wins this game just because it presents too many problems. Kelly should be able to hurt the Beavers on the ground. ASU’s aggressive front seven should be able to break past the Beavers’ pass protectors and disrupt Mannion. Its secondary should do a solid job limiting Cooks. And it’s difficult for Oregon State to win games if those two guys struggle at all.

Lockman: As much as Oregon State may be playing with a must-win mentality, I still think ASU wins, and I’ll say by a score of 48-28. First, ASU is just playing a different game at home right now. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why, but the Sun Devils look like a different team at home this season. Second, I think the ASU offense finds its rhythm again after scuffling against Utah. The Beavers’ defense has too many holes, and ASU has thrived on exploiting defensive weaknesses all season. Finally, and this may be the biggest thing, I think the ASU defense is getting better every week. Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks may get their yards, but I don’t think it will be enough to get a win in Tempe.