Arizona State (5-3; 2-3 in Pac-10) will attempt to win its third consecutive Pac-10 game for the first time since the 2002 season, and become bowl eligible in the process, when it takes on Oregon State (5-2; 3-2) Saturday at Reeser Stadium in Corvallis. Kickoff is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. locally, 2:05 in Arizona, with no television coverage.
The Beavers have a three game winning streak and are coming off one of the biggest wins in school history, when they defeated then No. 3 USC last Saturday, ending the school's 27-game Pac-10 winning streak.
It remains to be seen whether Oregon State will build off that impressive success, or instead have an emotional let down versus the Sun Devils, a team that has owned the head-to-head series, winning nine of 10 and easily handling the Beavers last year in Corvallis, 42-24.
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The Sun Devils appear to have finally found their identity after struggling through the early portion of the conference schedule. They've cut the playbook down and become more conservative, favoring short and intermediate passing routes over the vertical attack that has become a program trademark in recent years.
Running plays outnumber passing plays now and the team has cut down on turnovers, with quarterback Rudy Carpenter finally appearing comfortable with taking what defenses are giving him, and checking down to high percentage targets. As a result, his completion percentage has increased dramatically and the Sun Devils have had a number of sustained scoring drives in back-to-back Pac-10 wins over Stanford and Washington.
Oregon State has also seen what can happen when it cuts down on turnovers, as evidenced by the USC game, when the Beavers had zero giveaways and capitalizes on three lost Trojans fumbles and an interception of John David Booty to emerge victorious.
Quarterback Matt Moore has struggled throughout his career with throwing interceptions, including last season in the loss to the Sun Devils, when he had three, and the team turned the ball over six times in all.
But Moore seems to have become more poised of late, and he'll present the Sun Devils with a difficult task defensively, particularly as the team presents a balanced offensive attack featuring running backs Yvenson Bernard and Clinton Polk. Bernard is the No. 2 running back in the Pac-10, averaging 106.6 yards-per-game, but he sat out last weekend's game with a sore ankle. No matter for the team, as Polk, in his first start, rushed for 100 yards on 22 caries.
Bernard is questionable for this game but regardless of whether he plays, the Beavers are going to do things much as they have throughout the season, though they may miss his versatility and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He has 24 catches for 124 yards this season, third best on the team.
The improved consistency in the run game has made the job easier on Moore, who no longer has to throw the ball 40-plus times per game and hope the team can win in shootout fashion.
Moore can still beat teams via the passing game and his top target, junior Sammie Stroughter has 42 catches for 770 yards this season, including 100-plus yard performances in four of his last five games. Tight end Joe Newton is among the top players at the position nationally, and a big time red zone target. He has 25 catches for 277 yards and four touchdowns this season.
Standout cornerback Justin Tryon will probably draw the assignment of Stroughter, and with Rudy Burgess doubtful for this game with an ankle sprain, senior Keno Walter-White will be a key figure to watch on Saturday. He's been largely hit-or-miss all season, making big plays and also giving them up.
One of the other big reasons for Oregon State's improvement this season has been the emergence of a stellar run defense that is second in the conference, allowing just 95.5 yards on the ground per outing.
The Beavers are deep on this side of the field, with a player rotation that allows the group to stay fresher and more in tuned to what's taking place on the field, with extremely defined roles that players understand and can buy into.
Oregon State has 28 sacks, second most in the conference, and it has a number of players contributing to that broad success. Dorian Smith, a JUCO transfer leads the team with 4.5 sacks, but he is actually a backup defensive end, playing behind Joe Lemma, who has three sacks this season, and has started 31 consecutive games.
Middle linebacker Alan Darlin is a run stopper who leads the team with 53 total tackles and three fumble recoveries, and is tied for the team lead with nine tackles for loss. He's also second on the team with four sacks.
Three other players have three or more sacks, led by junior strongside linebacker Derrick Doggett, with 3.5. Doggert is also the team's second leading tackler, with 48 stops, nine of which were for a loss. He also has two interceptions, two pass breakups, one fumble recover and one forced fumble.
As a whole, the linebackers group is perhaps the strength of the team's defense. JUCO transfer Joey LaRocque, the starter on the weakside, is the team's third-leading tackler, with 45 on the season.
Senior strong safety Sabby Piscitelli is the leader of the defensive backfield, with three interceptions and five pass break ups to go along with 37 tackles. Bryan Payton, twin brother of ASU safety Jeremy Payton has assumed the role of the team's starting free safety and he's done well of late as a coverage safety, especially last weekend against USC.
The team's regular starting cornerbacks are Keenan Lewis, who leads the team with six pass deflections, and Brandon Hughes, who has four deflections. Lewis has been playing through a reported shoulder injury.
On special teams, Oregon State features placekicker Alexis Serna, widely considered to be among the top players at the position in the country. He's connected on 85 straight point after attempts and has a career long field goal of 58 yards, a school record.
The Beavers also have one of the top return specialists in the nation in Stroughter, who is averaging a league-best 19.7 yards per punt return, with a Pac-10 record tying three touchdowns.
Stroughter does not return kickoffs, and the team's best performer in this category is Coye Francies, who ranks sixth in the conference with a 23.6 yard return average.