ASU coach Kenny Dillingham reunites with old football friends when Oregon visits Tempe for Pac-12 clash

ASU football coach Kenny Dillingham gears up for a matchup against former colleague and Oregon coach Dan Lanning, as the Sun Devils aim to upset the 6th-ranked Ducks. (Photo by Reece Andrews/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – With an opportunity to end sixth-ranked Oregon’s College Football Playoffs hopes Saturday, ASU coach Kenny Dillingham’s thought process for the game is unlike any other this season.

One season removed from Oregon’s coaching staff as the offensive coordinator, Dillingham likened this week’s game to a chess match.

Standing on one side of the board is Dillingham, who is making decisions based on what he knows about Oregon’s program. On the other side of the board is Dan Lanning, the Oregon coach and Dillingham’s old friend who knows all of the ASU coach’s tendencies.

The familiarity between the two coaches, who both coached at Memphis at the same time in their early careers, has turned Saturday into more of a mind game than a football game on the sidelines of Mountain America Stadium.

“There’s a person in my head,” Dillingham said Tuesday after practice. “I think, ‘I want to do this,’ and the voice says, ‘He knows I like that.’ It puts an evil person in your head that’s telling you, ‘He knows what the game plan is.’ It makes you paranoid.”

Saturday marks the first time Dillingham and Lanning face each other as head coaches. Although both approach the Pac-12 matchup from different angles – Oregon is 9-1 overall, 6-1 in the conference and gunning for a playoff spot, while ASU (3-7, 2-5) has eyes on an upset – the coaches’ relationship adds intriguing layers.

The two are friends stemming back to their days with the Memphis football program. Dillingham was on Mike Norvell’s staff as a graduate assistant in 2016 and was elevated to offensive coordinator just two years later.

Lanning was an inside linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator for the one season he spent with the team in 2016.

During their time together, Dillingham and Lanning created a relationship beyond the football field.

“I’ve got a bunch of Dan Lanning stories. I have a favorite, but I can’t share them.” Dillingham said.

Heading into the offseason leading into 2022, Oregon found itself coachless. With Mario Cristobal heading to Miami for its top coaching job, the team started searching for his replacement.

Already established as an elite program, the Ducks had many top-notch coaches worthy of the job. Oregon settled on Lanning as the team’s next coach in December 2021. Lanning was in the midst of winning a national championship as the defensive coordinator at Georgia when the hire was announced.

As a defensive-minded coach, Lanning needed an elite offensive mind to guide the other side of the ball. He selected Dillingham to lead the charge.

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In his first year at the helm of Oregon football, Lanning led the Ducks to a 10-win season and a bowl win. After the success of Lanning’s first year, most of the Ducks’ star skill players from last season returned. A majority of these players are having huge years.

Under Dillingham’s supervision as offensive coordinator, the Ducks had one of the top offenses in the country. Oregon was top 10 in the country in touchdowns scored (66) and yards per game (500) in Dillingham’s only season with the program.
After proving himself as an “offensive guru,” Dillingham accepted the vacant coaching job at his alma mater, Arizona State.

While Dillingham hasn’t had the type of success that he had in Eugene during his brief tenure in Tempe, he has an opportunity to prove himself against Lanning and his former players when the Ducks come to Tempe.

Between this season and last, Dillingham is one of the only assets from last year’s Oregon team to leave as Lanning’s team has only grown stronger. Even though Oregon had a top offense under Dillingham last season, the Ducks are outperforming themselves this year.

The Ducks enter Saturday’s clash averaging 46.3 points and 540 yards of offense per game. The lofty numbers rank first and second in the country, respectively.

They could be tested this weekend with ASU’s bend-don’t-break defense. The Sun Devils are giving up a touchdown 49% of the time their opponent has entered the red zone and are coming off a game where the defense did not let UCLA convert on fourth down in four attempts.

“This is Oregon’s best offense since the Chip Kelly and Marcus Mariota era. That includes when I was there last year. What makes them so scary is they are elite up front, good wideouts, a good running back and an elite quarterback,” Dillingham said Monday at his weekly news conference.

Wide receivers Troy Franklin, Tez Johnson and running back Bucky Irving are all top players in the country at their positions and show the potential of NFL-caliber players.

Franklin is fifth in the country in receiving yards (1093), and Irving is third in the Pac-12 in rush yards (939). Johnson ranks second on the team in receiving yards (725).

“I think Troy Franklin is playing at a really, really, really high level. I think Tez (Johnson) is a phenomenal slot receiver. He’s really good with the ball in space,” Dillingham said. “I think everything that that offense was, is just better than they were last year.”

A large reason for Oregon’s success is Bo Nix, who Dillingham has had a relationship with beyond their one season in Eugene. Dillingham was Nix’s offensive coordinator when he became the first true freshman to start a season opener for Auburn since 1946 in 2019.

“We have an unbelievable relationship going back to Auburn. He was the freshman quarterback that I recruited towards that cycle and built a great relationship,” Dillingham said.

“He moved to Oregon because of our relationship. That’s how good our relationship is because he and his family trusted me to move out there.”

At Oregon, under Dillingham, Nix had the best season of his college career to that point when he threw for 3,593 yards, 29 touchdowns and completed 71% of his passes.

The potential Heisman winner has played even better this year. Nix is top five in the country in passing touchdowns (29), passing yards (3,135) and completion percentage (77%).

Not only is Nix making a case for a Heisman, he is catapulting himself into the conversation of being a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.

“One of his greatest strengths is that he’s gone from a guy who runs around a lot to a guy who has the quickest snap-to-throw timing in college football,” Dillingham said. “That is a testament to his intelligence, work ethic and who he is as a person. He’s married, but if he wasn’t you would want your daughter to marry him.”

Nix could run into some issues with the Sun Devil’s defense on Saturday. ASU is limiting its opponents to 217 yards per game through the air. That ranks third in the Pac-12.

The Oregon quarterback is not the only Heisman candidate that ASU has faced this year. Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. was limited to 275 yards and two interceptions when ASU was in Seattle.

Although Dillingham has a lot of experience coaching Nix, it doesn’t change the way that he is approaching Saturday’s game against Oregon.

“We’re going to do the best things possible to win. We might put 12 guys out there. Not really, that would be a penalty. But we are going to do whatever we can to put our guys in a position to be successful,” Dillingham said.

Lucas Gordon LOO-kiss GORE-din
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Lucas Gordon expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business and digital audiences. Gordon has interned at The Arizona Republic.

Reece Andrews REES AN-drooz (he/him)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Reece Andrews expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Andrews has worked for the State Press and at WCSN. He has also been in Cronkite News Los Angeles.