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Dr. Saturday

Knees and arms may sideline Ducks’ stars, but a Pac-12 defense will never stop them

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

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Oregon 41, Arizona State 27.
Before tonight, Oregon had won 18 consecutive Pac-10/12 home games in Autzen Stadium, almost all of them as a favorite, and none of them quite so ripe for an upset to end the streak. Arizona State is a top-20 team with a big-armed quarterback and a three-touchdown thrashing of USC to its credit. The Ducks' All-American tailback, LaMichael James, was sideline with an injured arm. The starting quarterback, Darron Thomas, hobbled off with an apparent knee injury at the start of the quarter, with the game very much in doubt. Almost immediately after Thomas' exit, the Sun Devils scored a touchdown on their first possession of the second half to go up 24-21.

Oregon's response, sans the two players most responsible for making the prolific offense go? The same as Oregon's response to everything: Hit the gas.

With James watching in street clothes, backups Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas went for 232 yards and three touchdowns between them on 37 carries. With Thomas limped into the locker room on a gimpy knee and Arizona State suddenly back in front in the second half, backup Bryan Bennett led the Ducks to two quick touchdowns on his first two possessions, fueling the second with runs of 36 and 18 yards. The defense, already victimized by three ASU touchdown drives in the first 32 minutes of the game, responded by forcing punts on four of the Devils' last five possessions, and holding them out of the end zone for the entire second half.

The final result — 41 points on 524 total yards, or 7.5 yards per play — was indistinguishable from almost any other Oregon game at full speed. Which is another way of saying that the Ducks' only speed is full speed, regardless of the circumstances.{YSP:MORE}

Although it didn't matter tonight, the one circumstance that did seem to legitimately change in the transition from Darron Thomas to Bennett was the passing game: Before his exit, the offense had relied mainly on Thomas' arm in the first half, when he was 13-for-16 passing for 188 yards and two touchdowns. After, Bennett was a shaky 2-for-5 and clearly looked more comfortable with the running game. That was no problem here; with Colorado and Washington State on the horizon to close out October, it shouldn't be an issue if Thomas is forced to miss more time unless Bennett unleashes a sudden barrage of turnovers. (If necessary, it seems entirely possible Oregon can beat Colorado and Washington State without attempting any passes.)

That changes in November, with back-to-back games at Washington and Stanford — both currently tied with the Ducks at the top of the Pac-12 North — and a visit from USC. At that point, James' extreme production out of the backfield would be nice; Thomas' command of the entire offense is essential. Until then, there's no slowing down for the nation's most prolific stopgaps.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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