TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Second-ranked Oregon has raced through its first six games without hitting much of a speed bump, using its quick-strike offense to put most opponents away by halftime.
Arizona State is off to a strong start under coach Todd Graham, winning five games, nearly pulling off a sixth victory.
The Pac-12 division leaders get a chance to see just how good they really are Thursday night in what should be a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it offensive showcase at sold-out and blacked-out Sun Devil Stadium.
“It’s a big-time matchup,” Arizona State linebacker Brandon Magee said.
It sure is.
On one side there’s Oregon (6-0, 3-0 Pac-12), the national runner-up two years ago, defending Rose Bowl champion for the first time in 95 years, possibly even better this season.
The Ducks are more swarm than flock, all those speedy athletes making the play clock obsolete and looking away, if even for a second, is to risk missing a touchdown, maybe two.
Oregon has two of the most dynamic running backs in the country in Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas, and a slew of talented receivers who have made life a whole lot easier for freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota.
A win would give Oregon a boost to overcome its slim deficit behind No. 2 Florida in the BCS Standings and position itself for a shot at another title game.
Arizona State (5-1, 3-0) also likes to hike it fast, often hovering at the line of scrimmage, waiting for the official to put the ball down to get off its next play. The Sun Devils have a few talented running backs of their own and a quarterback, Taylor Kelly, who plays with a sandlot quality to him, often at his best when things break down.
Arizona State leads the Pac-12 South after running away from Colorado in the second half of a 51-17 win in Boulder last week.
Beat Oregon and the Sun Devils will gain national attention that few expected so quickly under Graham.
“I’ve got a belief in our guys,” Graham said. “We have a good football team. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.”
Oregon will be facing its first true road test.
The Ducks have played five games at Autzen Stadium and their sixth was against Washington State in Seattle, where there were nearly as many Oregon fans as Cougars followers.
Thursday night’s game should be an entirely different atmosphere, particularly for Mariota.
The first freshman to start the season at quarterback for Oregon in 21 years, he played well through the first half dozen games, throwing for 1,301 yards and 15 touchdowns while completing 68 percent of his passes.
Sun Devil Stadium is expected to be a sellout and filled with rowdy fans who have been encouraged to wear black T-shirts to create an intimidating blackout effect.
In other words, it’ll be like nothing Mariota has seen before.
“I just have to make sure I take care of what I’ve got to do,” he said. “A lot of times a crowd can try and influence an offense, especially with our communication. I have to make sure I’m the guy (the offense) can look to.”
For Arizona State to have a chance, it will have to do something no other team has come close to doing this season: Stop the Ducks.
Oregon has the nation’s second-ranked scoring offense at 52.33 points per game — its closest game was 17 points — and is eighth in total offense with nearly 542 yards. The Ducks have done it quickly, too, with 25 of their 39 scoring drives covering two minutes or less, including 14 in 60 seconds or less.
The Sun Devils’ focus will be on sustaining drives when they have the ball, limiting Oregon’s explosive plays and, a common theme for Graham since he arrived in the desert, forcing them into turnovers.
“The bottom line, we have to have takeaways and we have to have a 100 percent ball security,” Graham said. “That is just like in any game, I say the same thing every week because that is just how it is. But this week it is even more important.”
Even if the Sun Devils force Oregon into some turnovers, it still won’t be easy.
The Ducks have turned it over 14 times so far this season, but haven’t blinked when it’s happened, often answering with a big play on the next series.
And the road hasn’t intimidated Oregon in the past. The Ducks have won 11 straight games away from Autzen Stadium, the longest streak in the FBS, and have a four-game winning streak in Tempe.
Oregon also is coming off a bye week, giving it plenty of time to prepare for the Sun Devils.
“If you’re going to be a great football team, you’ve got to be able to win on the road,” Kelly said.
The winner of this game will make a big statement.
Either way, it should be fun to watch.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.