TEMPE, Ariz. — A little over a year ago, Oregon unceremoniously fell from the national rankings after years of being rated among the nation’s best.
Now, after a 3-0 start in nonconference play, the Ducks are back at No. 24 heading into their Pac-12 opener at Arizona State. Oregon has been ranked at one time or another for 20 consecutive seasons.
None of which seems to mean much to first-year coach Willie Taggart.
“We really don’t talk much about being ranked, or anything like that,” he said. “That’s never been anything we’ve emphasized. We always talk about getting better and by being ranked it shows our football team is improving and we’re getting better. We’re doing the things we need to do.”
Taggart does like what he’s seen from his team as it progressed week to week in victories over Southern Utah, Nebraska and Wyoming.
“I think we’re making improvements that we need to make,” he said. “I think we’ve improved in each game, from Game 1 to Game 3, and we’ve gotten better in a lot of areas.”
Arizona State (1-2) has stumbled out of the gate with losses to San Diego State and Texas Tech after a narrow win over New Mexico State. Recent history suggests the Sun Devils will have their hands full with Oregon, too.
The Ducks have beaten Arizona State 10 straight times and have scored at least 41 points in each of their last seven encounters.
After giving up 106 points in their first three games, the Sun Devils have a tough task against the prolific Oregon offense.
“None of those games mean anything, those first three games,” Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. “You’re playing teams from different conferences. You’ll be surprised by the things that you see. What matters is when conference play starts and what you do now and moving forward.”
Here are some things to look for when the Ducks play the Sun Devils on Saturday night:
THIRD DOWN: Arizona State’s defense has had more than its share of troubles against teams on third down.
Opponents have converted 54.5 percent of their opportunities. That could spell big trouble against Oregon, with its prolific running game and standout young quarterback Justin Herbert.
“Obviously, we need to get off the field,” Graham said. “We’ve been in third and seven or eight, third and 10 or 12 or 20, and those are times where the percentages should be with you. We’re getting to third down and even second-and-long so those are situations we have to look at to get better at getting off the field.”
ACCURATE WILKINS: Quarterback Manny Wilkins is off to a strong start for the Sun Devils, with remarkable accuracy.
He’s thrown 149 passes and has yet to be intercepted. He has 924 passing yards and seven touchdowns. He threw 12 TDs all of last season.
NELSON STATUS: Oregon senior receiver Charles Nelson was carted off the field during the 49-13 victory at Wyoming last Saturday. On Monday, Taggart confirmed the injury was only an ankle sprain and he expected Nelson back “soon” although he did not specify this weekend in Tempe. Nelson was listed atop the depth chart for the game. He has 15 catches for 243 receiving yards.
STEALING SIGNS: In past years, Oregon has taken great pains to make sure Arizona isn’t stealing its signals, even putting up large screens on the sidelines. Taggart said he wasn’t going to bother.
“If they can pick up our signs and stop us, more power to them,” he said. “We’re not concerned about that.”
LAST YEAR: Arizona State went to Oregon last year with a boatload of players out with injuries, including the starting quarterback, top receiver, leading rusher, top run stopper and best cornerback.
Needless to say, it was a long day for the Sun Devils in Eugene, even though they were playing an Oregon team that had plenty of troubles of its own.
The Ducks rolled for 734 yards, second-most in school history, in a 54-35 victory.
It was Oregon’s lone victory in a stretch of eight Pac-12 games and one of just two conference victories for the Ducks all season.