No. 9 Oregon preps for No. 18 ASU without James
Oregon coach Chip Kelly likes to say that in running backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, the Ducks have option No. 1 and No. 1a - because Barner is so close to James' skill level that he can hardly be considered backup material.
That means Oregon doesn't expect to lose a step in James' likely absence when the ninth-ranked Ducks host No. 18 Arizona State on Saturday night.
James dislocated his right elbow in Oregon's 43-15 victory over California on Oct. 6. The nation's top running back appeared smiling outside the locker room after the gruesome-looking injury, explaining how he'd popped the elbow back in place himself.
Earlier this week the junior wouldn't rule himself out of the game against the Sun Devils, but it is very doubtful that he'll play because there's too much at stake - not only for the Ducks but for James' own future after college.
Barner, James' best friend, was hampered earlier this season by an ankle injury, but he's run for three touchdowns in three games. Last season, when Barner started for James in the opener against New Mexico, he ran for 147 yards and had five touchdowns, four on the ground and one scoring catch.
In addition to Barner, the Ducks (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) have two talented true freshmen, De'Anthony Thomas and Tra Carson. Thomas, who has also played at wideout and is the Ducks' leading receiver, has six touchdowns so far this season, four via passes.
So exactly what adjustments will the Ducks make without James?
''Nothing changes,'' coach Kelly said simply.
And that, coincidentally, is exactly how Arizona State sees it.
''You take Barner, you take De'Anthony Thomas - who we tried to recruit - and they're something special. They're solid in all areas,'' said Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson. ''They're not going to try to change anything. They do what they do and they've got depth to do it, so you don't treat it any different whether he plays or whether he doesn't. ''
Defense has been a key to the Sun Devils' success of late. Led by All-American linebacker Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State (5-1, 3-0) is ranked second in the Pac-12, behind Stanford, in total defense, allowing 349 yards. Their rushing defense allows an average of 119.7 yards a game.
In a 35-14 victory over Utah last week, the Sun Devils defense had three interceptions, and the Utes were 4 of 13 on third downs.
The Sun Devils have forced a league-best 18 turnovers this season, including 10 in the last two games. They have 10 interceptions, equaling last season's total, and eight fumble recoveries.
Oregon's defense, in contrast, has caused just four turnovers this season. That's a concern for Kelly, considering the Ducks had 37 takeaways last season.
''We work on the turnover circuit every day. We do scoop-and-score, we do strip drills, we do interceptions drills every day. Nothing's changed for us. We've been on the plus side of it in the two previous years,'' Kelly said. ''We're doing a great job holding onto the ball, we've just not created as many as we have in the past.''
The biggest -literally - challenge for Oregon's defense will be Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler, who threw for 325 yards and three touchdowns in the Sun Devils' victory over the Utes.
Kelly joked when asked if it's possible to replicate the 6-foot-8 junior in practice.
''Yeah, if we stack two guys on top of each other,'' he said.
Osweiler made his first start as a true freshman at Autzen Stadium two seasons ago, and had to leave the game after getting hit hard in the first half. The Ducks won 44-21.
He expects his experience will help him this time around, but he is still wary of Oregon.
''Their defense is good. Flat out, they are good,'' he said. ''They have great athletes. We have great speed but so do they, and they like to blitz a lot. They showed us that last year when we played them, but more importantly, especially at home they play very hard and very disciplined football.''
The Sun Devils have dropped six straight to the Ducks, including last season's 42-31 loss in 100-degree heat in Tempe. And they've lost 15 straight games against teams ranked in the Top 10.
Oregon, meanwhile, has won 19 straight at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks have also won 14 straight conference games, dating back to a loss at Stanford in 2009.
James suggested earlier this week that if he wasn't available to play, he'd be coaching his fellow running backs from the sidelines.
''I'm gonna get a visor,'' he teased his head coach. ''Same one Chip has.''