"If don't know if there can be a worst start," said Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. "And then we decided that maybe, possibly we wanted to play today."
Once they did that, the Ducks scored 43 unanswered points in just over 17 minutes against the 5-2 Sun Devils' eighth-ranked defense. And that's frightening. If there was ever any doubt Chip Kelly's 7-0 team has the firepower to reach its second BCS championship in three years, it disappeared early in the second quarter Thursday night.
"We're as good as we allow ourselves to be," Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota said after his team's 43-21 victory, a deceiving score given the fact Oregon reached 43 points with 11:33 left in the second quarter.
This was supposed to be Oregon's first road test of the season. Arizona State fans staged a Blackout, and first-year coach Todd Graham urged them to "try to break the windows out of the new building over there" with their volume. He reminded reporters that the Ducks "have a new quarterback, and he is a great athlete and great player, but he hasn't been on the road." Even if they couldn't pull the upset, ASU would at least ensure Oregon had to play all four quarters for a change.
Well, Sun Devil Stadium never did fill up Thursday. And the revved up student section began to lose its energy somewhere around the time Oregon went up 22-7 late in the first quarter. That aforementioned new quarterback, redshirt freshman Mariota, had thrown a picturesque touchdown pass to make it 15-7, and would later break an 86-yard touchdown run to make it 36-7.
Meanwhile, the Ducks' defense gave up a touchdown on its very first snap -- and then didn't allow another offensive score until 4:47 remained in the game.
"Besides the very first play, when I lost my mind a little bit, because I'm selfish," said Aliotti, "we played really well."
Oregon, of course, has been blowing out overmatched Pac-12 foes for four seasons now. On Thursday, the Ducks improved to 29-2 in conference play under Kelly, having won 22 of those games (including all four this year) by at least three scores. Still, something about this particular bloodbath felt different.
Four days after the season's first BCS standings established Oregon as the top national-title contender outside of the SEC, and in its first Pac-12 game of the season to kick off before 10:30 p.m. on the East Coast, the Ducks put on the type of display that forces the rest of the country to take notice. Some SEC fans will try to downplay Oregon's 7-0 start because Washington and Arizona State aren't Florida and LSU (valid, though neither are they Auburn and Arkansas). Kansas State and Notre Dame fans will cry that their teams play tougher schedules (and the BCS computers agree).
But no matter your rooting interest, surely we can all agree it will be a heck of a lot of fun if Oregon were to eventually face Alabama in the BCS Championship Game.
That's still no given, mind you. Whereas in 2010 it seemed plainly obvious by mid-October that no one in the Pac-12 was going to touch the Ducks (and as it turned out, only Cal gave them a legitimate scare), an impending Nov. 3 date with Matt Barkley and USC (and possibly a rematch in the Nov. 30 Pac-12 championship game), not to mention the rise of 5-0 rival Oregon State into the top 10, should make the rest of Oregon's season less anticlimactic than it has been to this point.
But Oregon will undoubtedly be favored in every game -- and understandably so if you watched just the first quarter-and-a-half Thursday.
Twenty-three seconds after Arizona State went up 7-0, Ducks star Kenjon Barner broke a 71-yard touchdown run en route to a 143-yard night. It didn't help the Sun Devils' cause that midseason All-America defensive tackle Will Sutton suffered a knee injury on the aforementioned forced fumble and was lost for the night, or that defensive end Junior Onyeali followed shortly thereafter. It was no coincidence that Mariota, Barner and De'Anthony Thomas blew through gaping holes in the middle of ASU's defense.
"We have some guys that if you give them a crease -- when Marcus pulls it or Kenjon runs it -- they can go the distance," said Kelly. In particular, Mariota's explosiveness gives Oregon's offense a dimension that predecessors Darron Thomas and Jeremiah Masoli did not possess. "You can't sleep on him in the run game," said Kelly. "That makes [opponents] defend the whole field a little more."
But even if Oregon hadn't run for 406 yards Thursday, this probably would have been a blowout, in large part because of its ever-overlooked defense.
The Sun Devils came in with a top-25 offense led by Taylor Kelly, the nation's third-rated passer. Granted, they'd played no FBS team with a winning record (and in fact lost at 3-4 Missouri). But starting late in the first quarter, Oregon scored four touchdowns in fewer than five minutes in large part because its defense notched just the third and fourth interceptions Kelly has thrown this season. It ended four straight Arizona State possessions in three plays or fewer.
Kelly finished the night just 10-of-18 for 93 yards. Oregon held the Sun Devils to 202 yards on 51 plays through three quarters before ASU tacked on 206 in the fourth quarter against the Ducks' third-string defense.
"I don't think that's a true indication of what kind of defense we're playing," Aliotti said of the final box score.
Skeptics who still want to write off Oregon (most of whom live in the Southeast) will insist the Ducks can't match the physicality of an Alabama or Florida. They cite the 2010 title game against Auburn (though it was decided on a last-second field goal) or the 2011 opener against LSU (though the Ducks outgained the Tigers) as evidence. Even Kelly admits his offense was outmatched by both teams' defenses.
But the difference in 2012 is Oregon's defense, which, in holding ASU scoreless on three red-zone trips, has now shut out opponents on nearly half their red-zone possessions (14-of-29). Only Alabama and Notre Dame can claim better defensive percentages. With four interceptions Thursday, the Ducks are now tied for the national lead with 14. And with long, athletic pass-rushers like 6-foot-7 Dion Jordan, 6-6 Taylor Hart and 6-4 Kiko Alonzo, combined with the sound secondary of safeties Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson and cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Ifo Ekpre-Olumu, a normally productive quarterback like Kelly is limited to quick drops and confused by disguised blitzes.
"The best defense we face," said Chip Kelly, "is our own."
It's a bold claim, and perhaps an unexpected one for a team better known for 71-yard touchdown runs than 35-yard interception returns like Patterson's Thursday. But a team that scores 43 points every game is not necessarily a national championship contender. Ask West Virginia.
A team that can outscore its opponent 43-0 in just over 17 minutes, however -- that's a juggernaut. Now it just needs a worthy adversary.