Ducks kick off Pac-10 title defense

TEMPE, Ariz. — The flight back from Wisconsin seemed unusually long for Arizona State. The Sun Devils had a chance to beat the No. 11 Badgers and the missed opportunities in the one-point loss were gnawing at them on the trip home.

"There were a lot of sad guys on that plane," Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson said.

The Sun Devils better not be feeling any lingering effects; up next is powerful Oregon tonight.

The fifth-ranked Ducks are the defending Pac-10 champions and may be better and more balanced as they enter the conference opener for both teams.

Oregon leads the country in total and scoring offense, and is tops in both categories on defense. It's just a three-game sample, but still pretty impressive.

The offense, led by steady sophomore Darron Thomas, has been score-a-minute, piling up 189 points and more rushing yards per game (380.7) than all but one team in the country. The Ducks reel off so many big plays per game, Erickson called their offense better than Playstation.

Oregon's defense is just as good. The Ducks' D squeezes the open spaces to the point opponents have nowhere to go, often forcing third-and-longs they don't have much chance of converting.

In other words, Arizona State's going to have its hands full and is a 91/2;-point underdog even at home.

Oregon has had plenty of recent success against the Sun Devils, beating them five straight, including a 44-21 rollover in Eugene last season.

Arizona State has been consistently good defensively in four seasons under Erickson and now has some offense to go with it, with capable quarterback Steven Threet and an increase of speedy playmakers making the Sun Devils more balanced than they've been in the past.

So, after passing one road test by beating up Tennessee 48-13 in Knoxville, Oregon gets another potentially tougher one on what's expected to be an unusually hot night in the desert. And with a showdown against No. 16 Stanford next, the Ducks better be ready.

"We've had three good games but now we know we're going to be facing some different competition," said Oregon running back Kenjon Barner, who's nursing a groin injury. "There's some great teams in the Pac-10 and we want to go in and execute and come out with the same result."

Special teams could play a bigger-than-usual role.

So far this season, Arizona State has been the Pac-10's best kickoff return team, reeling off a 97-yard touchdown return and another for 95 yards against Wisconsin last week. The Sun Devils also have two of the nation's best legs in kicker Thomas Weber and punter Trevor Hankins.

So in addition to cranking up the heat in the team's practice facility this week to prepare his team for the desert, Oregon coach Chip Kelly had the Ducks working on kickoff coverage, full speed, one rep after another to make sure there weren't any missteps.

"It's going to be a challenge," Kelly said. "I've always said, when you get in this league, especially on the road, special teams are going to be the key."

Fail and the Ducks might have a long flight home, just like the Sun Devils did last week.

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