OSU coach Mike Riley is a great schemer. He comes up with excellent game plans and gets the most out of his players. Add to that the fact the Beavers are coming off a bye, and the Sun Devils will have their hands full.
Here are my keys to beating Oregon State:
1) Rediscover the Vertical Passing Game
In the last few games, the ASU offense hasn’t posed much of a vertical threat. They haven’t been able to really stretch the field. This could be a problem against Oregon State and will definitely be a problem down the road. When you keep throwing short routes, hitches, screens, quick-outs, etc., the defense can start cheating. In other words, the safeties can roll up, cornerbacks don’t bite and turn their hips, and linebackers widen out on passing downs — all in an attempt to take away the short game.
ASU has to be able to punish defenses when they cheat. Part of the equation is the health of wide receiverJaelen Strong. Apparently he is near full strength after his injury. But the other receivers, along with quarterback Taylor Kelly, should start executing in taking shots down the field.
2) Kelly Needs to Keep Running
As I pointed out in my analysis of the Utah game, there were four zone-read plays where Kelly guessed incorrectly. On the plays where the defensive front chased RB Marion Grice, Kelly should have kept the ball, but gave it to Grice anyway. On one play when the defense played him, Kelly kept it. These decisions led to losses in yardage. They are decisions he has made correctly in the past, and he’ll need to do again.
Kelly has to be a legitimate running threat and the most important ingredient in that is making the right read to give or keep the ball.
3) Bracket OSU Wide Receiver Brandin Cooks
ASU has to do this. It must force Oregon State QB Sean Mannion to look elsewhere to throw the ball. As always, the Devils can either press Cooks with a safety over the top, or play off with the corner and have a linebacker (or walked-up safety) slide underneath. But the defense cannot let Cooks get hot and in rhythm with Mannion.
The Beavers don’t have much of a running game to speak of, so ASU should be able to spare defenders in covering Cooks. It will be interesting to see how Oregon State moves Cooks around in trips/trey formations to probe the Sun Devils for tendencies and rules.
4) Move Mannion Around
Sean Mannion is the prototypical pocket passer. The ASU defensive unit needs to make him move. This is all about just flat-out getting after the quarterback. Obviously, the defensive game plan will involve changing looks, blitzing, stunting, etc. However they do it, the defense must NOT let Mannion sit there like Tommy Rees (Notre Dame) and look for his receivers.
5) Be Mentally Prepared for Adjustments
This is a catch-all. But Saturday night’s game might be the proverbial chess match between coaches/coordinators. Oregon State has had two weeks to game plan for the Sun Devils. Rest assured: there will be some wrinkles thrown at ASU. The Devils need to just assume right now that there will be different formations, shifts and looks than what the Beavers have shown on film. There might also be some wackiness in the kicking game.
ASU needs to prepare for as much as it can, but more than anything, on game day, stay on its toes and use good football sense to maintain coverages and responsibilities.
Last, but not least, it is critical for ASU to “Stay in the Moment.” So far, the Sun Devils appear to be facing their weekly battles and not getting ahead of themselves. The Utah game should prevent any of that from occurring. But with the Pac-12 South showdown looming in Pasadena the following week (which will also be a homecoming for a lot of ASU players who hail from Southern California), it might be easy for some players to overlook the Beavers — a huge mistake. I don’t expect that to happen, but it’s possible. 18-21 year olds don’t always do what they should.
ASU is close to pulling off a special, memorable season. The Sun Devils need to literally take it one play at a time.