When the Oregon Ducks last exited college football's center stage, they were limping back to Eugene after a 40-27 loss to LSU on opening night. The high-flying Ducks had been humbled again by an SEC defense, and some questioned if Oregon was really going to be as explosive in 2011 as it was during its run to the BCS title game in 2010.
Those questions have been answered, as the Ducks have rung up an average of 56 points in their last four games. Now they get another shot at playing a ranked opponent and justifying their top 10 standing when they host a dangerous Arizona State squad on Saturday night. The No. 18 Sun Devils are 5-1 and looking for a signature win that would at least put them in the discussion for a BCS bowl bid.
1. Life without LaMike: Oregon will likely be without the nation's leading rusher against Arizona State after LaMichael James dislocated his elbow late in Oregon's 43-15 win over Cal. The junior has ripped off three straight 200-plus-yard games and is averaging nine yards per carry to go along with his eight touchdowns. As good as James is, the Ducks have capable replacements, and coach Chip Kelly has said Oregon's approach will not change with or without James. Kenjon Barner will get the start and the bulk of the carries, and Barner has proved to be a strong sidekick to James. He gained 207 total yards starting in place of a suspended James in last year's season-opening 72-0 wipeout of New Mexico and has averaged over six yards per carry in his career. Freshman De'Anthony Thomas, who has emerged mostly as a slot receiver and is fifth in the Pac-12 in all-purpose yards with 145.8 per, will see more time as a true running back with James sidelined. Thomas has six touchdowns (four receiving, two rushing) and leads the team with 17 catches for 286 yards. No offense can simply shake off the loss of its best player, but Oregon should be OK. After all, five players besides James already have gains of 40 yards or more to their credit this season.
2. Brock returns to Autzen: Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler made his first career start at Oregon in 2009, and it did not go well. Osweiler, who that night became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Sun Devils since Jake Plummer, went 5-for-10 for 15 yards before leaving with an injury during a 44-21 Oregon romp. "My trip up to Autzen didn't go how anybody would hope," Osweiler said this week. Osweiler didn't get another chance to start until the last game of his sophomore season before taking over the job full-time this year. The tallest quarterback in the nation at 6-foot-8, Osweiler is fourth in the Pac-12 in passing with 279.5 yards per game, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. He had his best game in an overtime win over Missouri and has proven capable of handling pressure. "He's matured, obviously," said ASU coach Dennis Erickson. "He's become a huge leader on this football team." Osweiler will test the Oregon secondary with three capable receivers in Oregon transfer Aaron Pflugrad (26 catches), Gerell Robinson (26) and Jamal Miles (27).
3. Rematch in December? This may not be the only meeting between the Ducks and Sun Devils this season. Arizona State appears to be the favorite in the Pac-12 South, especially with USC ineligible for the championship game. UCLA is a game back, but can't really be considered a credible threat, and Colorado, Utah and Arizona are a combined 0-9 in league play. The North looks like a two-team duel between Stanford and Oregon, with the Nov. 12 showdown in Palo Alto determining the winner. Should the Ducks emerge as the North champs, Saturday night's game against the Sun Devils would determine home-field advantage for a Pac-12 title rematch.
Oregon enters the game as a 15-point favorite. The Ducks have some favorable trends. Oregon is 10-5 against the spread at home under Chip Kelly, including 6-3 in league games. The Ducks are 5-1 in their last six against the spread versus Arizona State, failing to cover an 11.5-point spread last year in an 11-point win. Arizona State is an impressive 10-5-1 versus the number as an underdog over the last three years, but 0-1 this year (a three-point loss at Illinois as a two-point dog). The Devils are 2-4 versus the spread this season.
Arizona State has forced 18 turnovers in six games, including 10 in its last two. Oregon has turned the ball over just four times in five games.
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
• LB Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State: Burfict is a dynamic and nasty defender who alters the momentum of games with his ability to make the big play. Forcing the action up the field, he also displays discipline in coverage and presents himself as a three-down defender. Burfict often plays out of control and is viewed by league scouts as a loose cannon. The junior will be an exceptional NFL player if he pulls it all together. Grade: First-round prospect.
• WR Gerell Robinson, Arizona State: The big-bodied senior is in the midst of a career campaign and is finally living up to the expectations NFL scouts placed on him. At 6-3 and 222 pounds, Robinson plays big and uses his frame to physically defeat opponents. Forty times in pre-draft workouts are critical for Robinson, but there's no denying the arrow is pointing north. Grade: Fifth- or sixth-round prospect.
• G Carson York, Oregon: York has been a stalwart on the Ducks' offensive line the past three seasons and the junior is highly thought of in scouting circles. He's a fundamentally sound lineman who opens holes for the running game, holds the point in pass protection and shows skill blocking in motion. Possessing a nice degree of upside, York offers starting potential at the next level. Grade: Third-round prospect.
• OLB Josh Kaddu, Oregon: The hardworking senior linebacker has caught the attention of NFL scouts this season and is moving up draft boards. He's a fearless defender who sacrifices his body to make plays behind the line of scrimmage and at the same time displays the athleticism and instincts necessary to cover tight ends or running backs. Kaddu also possesses a special-teams mentality, which only adds to his value at the next level. Grade: Fifth-round prospect.
It's easy to dismiss James' absence and predict the Ducks will put up their usual 50-plus points, but Arizona State has a strong linebacking corps and running lanes might not be as easy to come by for Oregon. Darron Thomas has not been as consistent throwing the ball for the Ducks this season, putting more stress on the running game. If Arizona State can move the ball through the air and keep the game close, the Ducks may not react well, even though they are at home. Everything -- special teams, penalties, turnovers -- will have to go right for Arizona State to keep it close. That's probably too much to ask with the game in Eugene, where the Ducks have won 19 straight, but this one won't be a runaway. OREGON 39, ARIZONA STATE 30