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BY JASON VONDERSMITH/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Arizona State known for close games, and this one could be, too

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Ducks defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux (5) reacts after making a play against the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.  If history proves anything, Arizona State might not win Saturday against Oregon, but expect Herman Edwards' Sun Devils to keep the game close and scare the bejesus out of the team dreaming of the Pac-12 title and College Football Playoff berth.

To the naysayers: The Edwards experiment at Arizona State has worked, as the former NFL player and coach can lead a college football team, recruit good players, develop them and put a competitive product on the field. The Sun Devils made a bowl game last year, and are one win away from returning to the postseason.

The numbers tell the story. Arizona State has a 12-11 record under Edwards, and the 11 losses have come by an average of seven points. Only one team (Utah) has beaten the Sun Devils by more than 11; the Utes beat ASU 21-3 at home, the last points coming with 5:24 left.

Fresno State beat ASU by 11 points (31-20) in the 2018 Las Vegas Bowl. UCLA topped ASU at home by 10 points (42-32) earlier this season.

The Sun Devils are 8-3 at home under Edwards, and the three losses have come by an average of five points — 3 to Colorado and 5 to USC this season, and 7 to Stanford last season.

You get the picture.

So, the Ducks (9-1, 7-0 Pac-12) have a great opportunity to make a statement. It's the time of year where routs help win the beauty contest, and Oregon needs to dominate Arizona State to gain traction in the CFP argument. The game is airing at 4:30 p.m. (7:30 p.m. on the East Coast) on national television (ABC), and beating Edwards' team soundly could further bolster the Ducks' resume.

And, if somebody could position themselves to ask a question of Edwards after the Ducks, say, win 45-21 or something, one would think the loquacious, personable and recognizable Edwards would say some glowing things about Justin Herbert, Troy Dye & Co. for all the ESPN, CFP and East Coast media types to hear.

Arizona State won't go down quietly, though.

The Sun Devils (5-5, 2-5) have lost four consecutive games, including 35-34 at Oregon State last weekend after a failed two-point conversion attempt that would have given them the lead.

Although averaging only 24.7 points (while giving up 23.5), the Sun Devils have good skill players in true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels, running back Eno Benjamin and receivers Brandon Aiyuk, Kyle Williams and Frank Darby.

Daniels is averaging 248.4 yards and completing 61.4% of his passes, with 14 TDs and two interceptions. When he missed the USC game with a lower-leg injury, backup Joey Yellen went 28 of 44 for 292 yards and four TDS.

Benjamin has been slowed from his 2018 season of 1,642 rushing yards, but he has 801 yards (4.3 per carry), 34 receptions and 10 total TDs. Aiyuk has picked up where N'Keal Harry left off, with 53 receptions for 964 yards and seven TDs; Darby and Williams have combined for 62 receptions, 814 yards and eight TDs.

ASU will be a challenge for Andy Avalos' defense, which notched its fifth game without allowing a touchdown last weekend (34-6 win over Arizona).

Avalos has made an impact with personnel usage and fronts and players such as linebackers Dye, Isaac Slade-Matautia and "Stud" Bryson Young, safety Jevon Holland and cornerback Deommodre Lenoir. The Ducks allowed Arizona only 240 yards of offense.

"The defense is playing at another level than they were a year ago," Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin said of the Ducks. "They have good team speed. They've got great size."

Arizona State has done a decent job on defense as well, although Oregon State's Jake Luton torched the Sun Devils for four touchdown passes on 26-of-35 passing for 288 yards (and no interceptions). The Sun Devils play an unusual defensive alignment (three linemen, 3 linebackers, 5 backs), which can be troublesome.

It's probably nothing that UO's Justin Herbert can't handle, as the senior quarterback has increased his TD total to 28 with only three interceptions. Juwan Johnson has emerged as a go-to target, complementing Johnny Johnson III and Jaylon Redd, and hard-running CJ Verdell and quick-footed Travis Dye have chipped in with the run game.

Said Sumlin: "You've got a really experienced offensive line that's played a lot of football. You've got a really experienced quarterback who is extremely accurate with weapons on the outside."

But, again, the ASU game won't be a gimme. I think it'll be close, as in 2018 ASU-Oregon close (and 2017, when ASU edged Oregon at home). The Ducks led 28-13 last season, but ASU rallied and nearly tied the game 31-31; Darby's two-point conversion reception from Manny Wilkins was ruled out of bounds. Replays showed Darby was inbounds, and onlookers assumed it wasn't reviewed, but the Pac-12 said later that it was reviewed.

Oregon's La'Mar Winston strip-sacked Wilkins late in the game to secure the 31-29 win. That result ultimately kept the Sun Devils out of the Pac-12 title game in Edwards' first season.

The Sun Devils probably haven't forgotten about their lost shot at glory.

Oregon coach Mario Cristobal said his players, after securing the Pac-12 North Division last weekend, "feel like we still haven't played our best football, and that's awesome to hear."

I'm not sure they'll play their best at Arizona State, and I expect the Sun Devils to keep it close, as they almost always do.

But Herbert, Dye and the veterans are not going to let their grand opportunity — perhaps making the College Football Playoff — die in the desert.

The pick: Oregon 34, Arizona State 31


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