The Oregon Ducks, ranked No. 6 in the country, sauntered into the Arizona desert, got behind large against an Arizona State team that had lost four straight games and then started playing the kind of football they were capable of.
Trouble was, it was too late. The Sun Devils toppled the Ducks 31-28 to become bowl eligible and drop Oregon out of the College Football Playoff picture.
Ducks coach Mario Cristobal’s team made a serious error when its uninspired play and mistakes in the first half gave the battered Sun Devils the belief they could play with Oregon. We’ve seen this before: give a team you are better than the idea they’re good enough to play with you, especially on their home turf, and you have trouble, and an upset on your hands.
Before the game, it was established that the team with the quarterback who looked more like the senior as opposed to a freshman would be the winner. At the end of this one, ASU’s Jayden Daniels played like a senior and Oregon’s Justin Herbert was the frosh. Daniels absolutely torched the previously tough Duck secondary for 408 yards and three touchdowns, and Oregon play-callers bogged the offense down with a conservative, uninspired approach through the second and third quarters.
The Ducks got behind 24-7 and, suddenly, it seemed as whoever was calling the plays decided they needed to give more leeway to Herbert’s natural gifts. He threw himself out of the doldrums and engineered three touchdown drives in 3½ minutes. But after the second TD, ASU scored on an 81-yard pass play to go ahead 31-21.
There were many killers you could point to, but the absolute killer was on third-and-16 for Arizona State on their own 19-yard line with time slipping away in the fourth quarter. The Ducks had just sacked Daniels to set up a delicious situation: all Oregon needed to do was allow less than 16 yards, force the punt and, down by only three points, give it to Herbert, who was unbelievably hot.
For some reason, the Ducks, at least some of them, were in man coverage, which is not what you want when your corners can’t cover deep routes ... a major problem for this night. The ASU wide receiver ran a double move that fooled the corner, who should not have paid any attention to it as it was short of the needed yardage for a first down. When Daniels’ pretty spiral came down it was hauled in the end zone for an 81-yard score.
Daniels three passing touchdowns were all major explosion plays: 57, 27, and 81 yards. And he completed a host of easy tosses to backs in the flat after a run fake that continually fooled the Ducks’ edge defender, who could not contain the athletic quarterback and pressure him to make a freshman mistake.
Credit must go to the ASU coaches, both offensive and defensive. They put together a simple game plan on both sides of the ball that feasted on Duck tendencies that had been successful in earlier games.
The game started, just as planned. In an efficient drive marked by crisp play and powerful blocking, Herbert led an 80-yard drive on UO's second possession for a 7-0 lead and the rout was on. Er, check that, it wasn’t on. The Sun Devils, behind the crisp passing of Daniels and the catching of Arizona State’s potent receivers (and poor pass defense by the Ducks), the game was tied on a 75-yard march. The capper came when Oregon’s left corner and safety gave an excellent demonstration of how not to play a two-deep against a streak route.
Perhaps the turning point of the game came after the Ducks were tied at 7-all in the first quarter. Herbert led a 69-yard drive to the Devils’ 5-yard line where on fourth-and-1, the Ducks got stuffed. Rather than being ahead 14-7, the next thing they knew they were behind 10-7 to a team that had not had the lead in a game since Oct. 12.
Daniels, who’s 6-foot-3 and a whippet-thin 175 pounds, suddenly looked like Johnny Unitas, ending the half 12-of-14 for 191 yards against a shaky Duck secondary that not only had troubles gathering around the Sun Devil pass receivers, but if they did they could not tackle very well, either.
The Ducks missed 15 tackles in the first half, not even close to the same secondary that did such a superb job of covering USC’s explosive receivers a lifetime ago. In fact, the tackling didn’t get any better in the second half, as at least 12 tackles were missed, mostly by defensive backs and linebackers.
In the beginning of the contest, Oregon’s offensive line opened up huge holes and created movement along the line of scrimmage, except when it really counted, on successive plays inside Arizona State’s 10-yard line with the score tied at seven. Third-and-3 brought two yards and then on fourth down, Oregon’s running back was tackled and stuffed from behind trying an inside running play out of the dreaded Pistol formation.
As it has happened several times this season with the Pistol and short-yardage situations where Cristobal wants to run the ball inside the tackles, the Ducks’ running back is so deep and slow to the point of attack that an unblocked defender can make the play from behind. And that’s what happened, again, on fourth down. It might not happen if the Ducks ever showed that unblocked defender that they had some play that could come back at him, preventing him from selling out on the running back.
Arizona State scored right after the Ducks’ first touchdown, which seemed to take the steam out of Oregon, both on defense and offense. Oregon could not convert a third down and after they were forced to punt, Daniels was able to coolly drive the Devils to a field goal and a 10-7 lead.
Was it time for the Ducks and Herbert to get their heads straight before halftime? No, they went meekly three-and-out and Daniels, who had been perfect throwing the ball until the last two minutes, drove ASU into Duck territory where, on third-and-10, Oregon finally got some pressure on the young freshman for a 10-yard sack that put them out of field-goal range.
At this stage, it was the first time the Duck front four looked like they were hungry, but they went to the locker room without establishing any kind of dominance over a youth oriented offensive line that went offsides six times in the half and nine times in the game.
With the score 10-7 at the half, most Duck fans were not noticeably nervous, knowing the Ducks have got things going in the second half routinely. As it turned out, Oregon’s offense and Herbert disappeared for the second and third quarters. Herbert looked flustered and resorted to several old throwing and footwork errors.
As Justin goes, so goes the Oregon offense. He threw interceptions on two successive drives and the Sun Devils scored 10 points off his errors. The Duck offense could not convert a third down on six successive drives and went seven drives without a score after their first touchdown.
Along with Herbert’s two picks, the offense turned it over on downs once and the previously opportunistic defense could not come up with any turnovers, hardly pressuring Daniels or the receivers enough to cause one.
After cutting the score to 31-28, the Ducks attempted an onside kick, but there was an offside penalty that would have brought it back had Oregon recovered the kick. The Sun Devils recovered the ball and celebrated with a huge win over a ranked team before an appreciative crowd that for several moments earlier, saw the game waning away.
The bottom line is this — the Ducks don’t have the depth or physicality at running back to be an imposing run-first team. Their true playmakers are receivers and tight ends. CJ Verdell and Travis Dye are tough runners who at best complement the work of the playmakers.
There is definitely value in running the ball, but it’s Herbert and the pass that sets the running game up, not vice versa. Spending an inordinate amount of time trying to establish the run, particularly on first down, cuts the pizzazz Herbert and his targets offer to make the Duck offense something to be feared.
A lot needs to get better this next week against Oregon State in the Civil War or the Ducks face the prospect of going into the Pac-12 Championship game against Utah with a two-game losing streak.
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years. He conducts a weekly coach's corner from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays at the 6th Street Grill.