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October 16, 2012

First look: Oregon

Oregon is a heavyweight.

Over the last half decade the No. 3 Ducks (6-0) have proven to be the class of the Pac-12, leaving their opponents bruised and bloodied along the way.

But it's not like Arizona State hasn't landed a few punches in that span, it just hasn't been able to deliver the knockout blow.

In 2010, the Sun Devils led 24-14 over UO with three minutes left in the first half. Last year ASU led 24-21 in the third quarter. But after those moments of hope, the wide-eyed Sun Devils combined for seven turnovers the rest of the way to see any hope for an upset fade away.

This time around, however, it likely won't be ASU who comes into the game the wettest behind the ears. UO true freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota's only experience away from Autzen Stadium came a few weeks ago against Washington state at neutral Century Link Field in Seattle.

This Thursday at Sun Devil Stadium will be a bit different.

In front of a blacked out crowd upwards of 70,000 under the lights in a midweek game on national television, the Sun Devils are hoping to exploit the Ducks' signal-caller's inexperience in a hostile environment all the way to a program changing victory.

"They don't have a quarterback that has gone through three years without losing on the road, this is his first year, this is his first game to play on the road," ASU coach Todd Graham said, when asked about Oregon's unblemished conference road record in recent years. "That is how we are looking at it. He hasn't been on the road and done that, he is a great athlete and great player but we are hoping we can do things to impact him and minimize the explosive plays."

Through six relatively easy games, the dual-threat Mariota has thrown for 1301 yards and 15 touchdowns while rushing for 302 yards as well. He has, however, been intercepted in four consecutive games and the Sun Devils think if they can give him adversity for the first time, they have a chance.

"If we put all the pressure on the quarterback, he has a bigger chance to mess up," ASU junior defensive linemen Will Sutton said. "He hasn't played anywhere where it has been loud. I have to penetrate and cause as much disruption as possible. He's a good player but we have to make him beat us. We can't let their running backs get us."

About that Duck rushing attack, it is as potent as any in the nation.

UO leads the Pac-12, by far, in rushing yards per game with 302.3. The next closest team is UCLA with 216.6 while ASU averages 187.8 per game.

Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas are well-known the names ASU will have to account for throughout Thursday evening. Like the Sun Devil rushing core, the Ducks' running backs make an impact in both the ground and air games.

Barner has 761 rushing yards and nine touchdowns with 111 yards and another score as a receiver. Thomas isn't too far behind with nearly 600 combined yards and nine touchdowns.

"They have the most dynamic player in the country and maybe the second most dynamic player in the country on the same team, and those are the challenges," Graham said. "The biggest concern is that they have a lot of dynamic players. You can tell that they have been in their system a long time."

That high-powered UO offense will face its stiffest test of the season to date, however, trying to contain Sutton, who leads the Pac-12 in sacks and tackles for loss.

"Anytime you face a good player, there has to be an understanding of where he is on the field, but we don't change what we're doing for him," UO coach Chip Kelly said. "He's definitely a good player though."

On the other side of the ball, the Ducks' less publicized part of the team is without a doubt its most improved. The UO defense is only giving up an average of 20 points per game, and that's with the 14 turnovers its offense has surrendered.

"Defensively they are very good," Graham said. "Probably the best defense we will face."

Special teams wise, the Ducks are one of the few teams in the Pac-12 with a less consistent kicking game than ASU. Their kickers have only made 4-of-7 attempts.

"This game we have to win explosive plays," Graham said. "We have to score points and create takeaways. That is the way I look at it. I don't try to look at every great thing they've done and try be scared to death. I'm going into this game to win it and that is our mentality. I don't mention their players by name. We show them one still and say here's their stats and the rest is how do we beat them."


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