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September 21, 2010

First look: Oregon

If the ASU defense was charged with stepping in front of the Mac Truck that was John Clay over the weekend, Saturday's assignment will be akin to chasing down a high-octane Lamborghini.

Yes, the No. 5 Oregon Ducks (3-0) are fast. The kind of blink-and-you-might-miss-them fast that gives defensive coordinators nightmares.

And while offensive outputs of 72, 49 and 69 may be eliciting double takes at the box scores, Oregon's defensive performance -- 13 points allowed and two shutouts -- has been equally impressive.

"To me they may be the best team in the country," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said at his weekly press conference Monday. "When you look at them on both sides of the football and in the kicking game, they're so balanced that it's hard to decide what their strengths are."

The easy answer: The Ducks have strengths everywhere, and experienced players can be found at nearly every position group.

The speed begins in the backfield, where sophomores LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner provide a 1-2 punch of lightning-quick bursts and shifty feet that is unparalleled in the country.

"Their running backs, LaMichael James and Barner, are guys that will quick strike on you all the time," Erickson said. "I've never seen a team that gets more big plays in the run game than the University of Oregon has this year and a year ago."

Big plays are the bread and butter for a rushing attack that accumulated a school-record 528 yards on the ground in a 69-0 win over Portland State. Four different players had a run of at least 20 yards in that contest, and that didn't even include Barner, who didn't play in the second half after suffering a minor groin strain.

It may be hard to fathom an offense could keep the same frenetic pace -- and perhaps elevate its play -- with the departure a quarterback in Jeremiah Masoli, whose command of the Ducks' zone-read scheme made him a preseason Heisman hopeful in some circles.

But Masoli's exit has been met by the rise of sophomore quarterback Darron Thomas, who, after winning a hotly contested battle over senior Nate Costa during fall camp, has been a main reason Oregon's high-powered offense has hummed along without missing a beat through the first three weeks of the season.

"Their strength is their running game, but when you force him to run it or force him to throw it, he's awfully good," Erickson said of Thomas. "He's faster than Masoli was, in my opinion. He's a different kind of runner than Masoli, but he's a better thrower."

Thomas' numbers haven't been eye-popping thus far -- he has completed 39 of 73 passes (53 percent) for 562 yards, eight TDs and two INTs -- but Oregon coach Chip Kelly believes it's all about progress for a young quarterback.

"For three games in, I'm really happy with where Darron's at," Kelly told reporters after his QB threw for four scores in the romp of Portland State. "He's young, he's a sophomore and he'll keep getting better."

Sixteen different players have caught a pass for Oregon (including Thomas, who recorded a reception for minus-four yards off a tipped pass), but Thomas' favorite target has been senior Jeff Maehl (13 receptions, 223 yards), who has caught at least one pass in 24-straight games.

Magee fine

Erickson said Monday that sophomore Brandon Magee is "fine" after suffering what was deemed a strained muscle in the back of his leg in the first half against Wisconsin.

Erickson probably could've played Magee more following halftime, but with Oliver Aaron playing well in Magee's stead, the coaching staff felt it unnecessary to risk further injury.

Magee will participate fully in Tuesday's practice, Erickson said.

The coach said no further injuries took place during the game and added that he was pleased with the play of sophomore defensive tackles Toa Tuitea and Corey Adams, who saw their first action of the year against Wisconsin after sitting out the first two games with injuries.

Fans, please

Erickson used his time with the media Monday to make a plea for more fans to be in the stands when ASU kicks off against Oregon on Saturday.

Attendance has been in the low-40,000 range during the first two games of the season, and the coach knows that substantially increasing that number can have a positive effect on his team.

"The fans make such a huge difference," Erickson said. "(The stadium) doesn't even have to be full, but you get those people excited about what's going on during a football game, our students excited about what's going on during the football game -- you gold it out and get a lot of people in there -- the motivation that has for our players is unbelievable.

"Hopefully we'll have a heck of a crowd out there. We just need to get as many people as we can and get that thing rockin' to give us an advantage."


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