TEMPE, Ariz. — This wasn’t a statement game for Oregon. This was a run-of-the-mill business trip.
Lay the plans on the table. Close the deal. Go home.
National pundits had billed this week’s getaway as Oregon’s first true test of the season. The City of Tempe practically declared a holiday, with a blackout crowd, a team decked out in black and a desert fan base heated to a fevered pitch as it camped out the night before the game.
Oregon wasn’t losing any sleep.
“We approached it like we approach any other game, whether it be in Autzen or CenturyLink Field or here down in Tempe,” linebacker Michael Clay said. “We don’t get really influenced by outside people.”
The shareholders were pleased with that plan on Thursday night.
Oregon was efficient. Oregon was exasperatingly athletic. Oregon was SEC fast. And Oregon could have boarded the charter flight back home at halftime because this 43-21 outcome had already been determined beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Arizona State’s defense entered the game ranked eighth in the nation in total defense (272.67 yards per game), ninth in scoring defense (14.17 points per game) and 38th in rushing defense (128.5 yards per game).
Oregon (7-0, 4-0 Pac 12) surpassed the latter two totals in the first quarter and the first one early in the second quarter as it built a 43-7 halftime lead. The Ducks finished with 377 yards of offense (329 rushing) in the first half before they dialed it back and gave their second- and third-string players some valuable experience in a road setting.
“We were a little flat in warm-ups today and I was a little concerned,” Ducks coach Chip Kelly said, tongue in cheek. “But it’s tough to fault them with how they played. Maybe they could scream and yell a little bit more in warm-ups and make me feel a little bit more comfortable.”
There is no doubt that the game’s second play altered the complexion of the remaining 161. Sun Devils defensive tackle and national sacks leader Will Sutton burst through the Ducks line and forced a fumble by quarterback Marcus Mariota.
ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly found receiver Kevin Ozier in the end zone on the very next play for a 28-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead. It should have been the spark that ignited hopes of an upset of the team currently ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings. The problem was, Sutton was sitting on the trainer’s table along the sidelines, nursing a knee injury that just might cost the junior standout the rest of his season.
His loss was a wet blanket on ASU’s defensive fire, and things grew worse when defensive ends Junior Onyeali and Davon Coleman also went down with injuries.
“So much of what we had planned was around him,” ASU coach Todd Graham said of Sutton. “You have to have a Plan B, and it took us well into the game to figure out what to do there. They are not a team you want to be scrambling like that on.”
But as much as Sun Devils fans wanted to lament that moment as the bad break that cost them a chance, it also clearly illustrated the difference between these two programs. In his first season in Tempe, Graham has plenty of talent among his starters, but the drop-off behind them is severe.
By contrast, the Ducks defense plugged in its second-string line on ASU’s third possession and rotated eight or nine guys all night. It was impossible to discern the difference.
“Sometimes we rotate 10 guys, and even if we lose a guy because they’re a senior or because they’re injured, there’s so much experience and talent coming back each year that the play calling doesn’t change,” Oregon defensive tackle Wade Keliikipi said.
Until you have depth, you can’t consider yourself a program. Oregon has it in abundance. ASU (5-2, 3-1) does not.
“Part of being a good team in this league is you’ve got to be able to weather,” Kelly said. “If you’ve got some depth and you’ve got some backups that can come in and act like they’re starters, then you’ve got a shot.
“That’s what this league is about when you really boil it down. If you’re going to be a good team in October and November, your depth is going to get tested. The teams that may be struggling slightly, it’s because they’ve had some injuries and they haven’t been able to weather that storm.”
So how good is Oregon? We don’t know yet. Neither does Kelly.
The Ducks have scored at least 42 points in every game this season, and that number is clearly impressive. But the Ducks haven’t faced a team that is currently ranked, and they won’t next week when they host hapless Colorado, a team ASU just boat-raced 51-17 in Boulder.
Oregon’s only real tests come Nov. 3 at USC, Nov. 24 when they play the Civil War against Oregon State in Corvallis, Ore., and in the Pac-12 title game, assuming the Ducks don’t stumble along the way.
“It’s a good question,” Kelly said, when asked to assess how good his team is. But it’s a question Kelly’s not interested in answering right now.
“The teams that are really good, you can’t throw your arm out of the socket, patting yourself on the back,” he said. “In this league, if you do and for some reason your mindset isn’t where it needs to be, you’re going to get beat.” Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter