There was plenty of chatter leading up to Oregon’s Thursday night trek into a blacked-out Sun Devil Stadium about Arizona State being the Ducks’ first accurate gauge. UO had played five games at home in Autzen Stadium, and played a road game that was more akin to a home contest in Seattle vs. Washington State. Less talk reverberated around the college football echo chamber that Oregon was more of a measuring stick for Pac-12 South-leading Arizona State than vice versa, given the Sun Devils had played just one team with a record currently .500 or better all season — and that was FCS Northern Arizona.
Take away an outstanding strip by 1st Team All-America caliber defensive tackle Will Sutton and Taylor Kelly’s ensuing beauty of a 28-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Ozier, and Arizona State did nothing in the first half to suggest it’s elite. Getting fat off the combined 13-19 record of the five cupcakes it chomped left the Sun Devils looking slow and bloated against the sleek Ducks. The slimming effect of black didn’t help ASU keep pace with a quicker, more physical and simply better Oregon.
Aside from the two aforementioned plays, it was truly a dismal first 30 minutes. The Black Out theme ASU marketing pushed became all too apropos, as Sun Devil Stadium took on an increasingly funeral-like atmosphere. No black-themed rock standard blared over the PA system, whether AC/DC’s “Back in Black” or The Stones’ “Paint It Black,” was bringing the crowd out of its malaise.
The Sun Devils lost Sutton on his forced fumble, and the nation’s second most effective pass rusher (8.5 sacks coming in) relegated to the sidelines on crutches. Not long after, end Junior Onyeali was lost too. Their absences were felt every time an Oregon ball carrier went through the Sun Devil defensive line as though it were wet tissue paper.
One-hundred and thirty-six yards with three touchdowns rushing for Kenjon Barner. One-hundred and thirty-five yards with a score for Marcus Mariota. Oregon’s video game offense was playing a defense set to Freshman mode. UO’s speed and multifaceted attack toggled the Sun Devils’ AI so low, the Ducks were even eluding would-be tacklers with mind tricks.
Mariota balled out with touchdowns rushing and passing, and a third receiving on a it’s-one-of-those-nights shovel pass from reserve quarterback Bryan Bennett. That particular score was just another example in the ever-growing file of ways Chip Kelly’s offense can beat an opponent.
Should SEC defensive coordinators be concerned? That seems to be the million dollar question with the Ducks ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings and so far, no one in the Pac-12 looking capable of slowing their roll. The staggering size and speed Nick Saban has in cache at Alabama would make for an intriguing match-up against the smaller Ducks. Likewise, BCS No. 2 Florida has one of the most athletic defenses in the nation, and one that already grounded an uptempo, spread offense in Texas A&M (albeit in the Aggies’ first game).
Though the overall athleticism of SEC defenses has resulted in losses the last two times Oregon has faced them, perhaps more significant is the preparation time between the end of the regular season and BCS championship. Oregon has a track record for losing when facing quality competition that has had extensive time to prepare: Boise State in Week 1 2009; Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl; Auburn in the BCS championship; LSU last season opener.
The Oregon offense is in less of a position to dictate pace in such match-ups. The hypothetical pairing of an offense from the SEC against the Duck defense is intriguing. Dion Jordan blitzes off the edge as well as most any defensive end playing, setting the tone for a unit as athletic and fast as its offensive counterpart.
Of course, all this is as much empty banter in mid-October as in mid-July as in mid-February. Any given Saturday and all that. Nevertheless, it’s fun debate to spark this time of year.
Arizona State is left to lick its wounds and regroup to avoid what has become an unfortunate hallmark of Sun Devil football in recent years: the late season meltdown. The latter half of ASU’s schedule is decidedly more challenging than the first half, with USC, Oregon State, UCLA and rival Arizona all still to come.
Head coach Todd Graham took a beating, and still gets pummeled, for his messy exit from Pittsburgh. Regardless, his message of culture change is well-received in Tempe. ASU didn’t spontaneously combust from penalty flags like many a Dennis Erickson coached team. The Sun Devils went from ranking dead last nationally in penalties, and came in the 13th least penalized team in college football.
The thorough thumping ASU sustained indicates that it’s not at the level of the conference’s best team. The Sun Devils are still mysterious in that they’ve faced two opposite ends of the spectrum. Where they are in between that spectrum will be defined in the coming weeks, and how Graham gets his team to respond will prove just how much the culture has changed.