Tonight, the real season begins.
The Oregon Ducks can no longer play games for a half and expect to escape every game they play unscathed or unthreatened. Tonight they have a serious-minded opponent, a team that many feel can give the fighting Chip Kellys a worthy foe with which they must reckon.
The Arizona St. Sun Devils are one of the two teams that Oregon is likely to face twice this season (either ASU or USC would figure to be the Pac-12 South favorites as of this moment) in the way to a BCS National Championship. And ASU looks exactly like the team that could give Oregon trouble.
Arizona State executes the fundamentals; Oregon has been choppy for periods before exploding in bunches with points. Arizona State is the least penalized team in the conference; Oregon is one of the worst. Arizona State is starting over with a brand new scheme; Oregon has plenty of gametape on them and are becoming a tough team to gameplan against.
It remains to be seen if Arizona State is that team that can spring the trap. As good as ASU has performed this year, they still have yet to really beat anyone of substance. The Sun Devils have generally poured it on against overmatched opponents to make their wins look all the better. They have played very well, but they have yet to play a team over .500.
But then again you could say the same thing about Oregon. Arizona and Washington are treading .500 and Fresno State has been decent, but that's about as good as it's gotten. The Ducks have played five of their first six games at home, and the sixth game was at a neutral site that was half-Oregon fans. You couldn't have paved an easier path to 6-0.
In many ways, it's like looking into the mirror. When you look at Arizona State's schemes compared to Oregon's, the Ducks and Sun Devils look very stylistically similar. Both of these teams are very dependent on the read option. Oregon is a bit more run heavy while ASU tends to distribute the football a bit more evenly. Both sides seem to really depend on rhythm and tempo, and they've had plenty of it in the first half of 2012.
Oregon's been doing it a bit longer than Arizona State though. Advantage Ducks in terms of experience. But will the execution be there? ASU has generally gotten their offense going without much of a hitch, although some of that has to do with the ease of the opposition. The Ducks seem to be getting the best of their opponents based on overall talent, but ASU definitely has talented players at each position.
This will be Marcus Mariota's first true road start. He has performed well, but he has struggled with interceptions (four in three Pac-12 games) and has also had trouble holding onto the football with a few fumbles lost. Mariota is going to have to hang onto the football to avoid ASU gaining any early traction. He's also going to have to keep drives moving through the air, as Oregon's offensive line might face their toughest tests in battling an ASU defensive line led by Will Sutton.
The Oregon defense will also get a real chance to flex their muscle. The most impressive performance by any unit in the Pac-12 was a shutdown, knockout effort against Arizona. Doing similar things to Arizona State will cause the rest of the offenses on their schedule to shudder, because ASU's offense is right up there with Oregon's in terms of overall efficiency.
As much fun as the first half of the season has been for Oregon, it's mostly window dressing compared to the rest of the season. Nothing the Ducks have done up to this point has done anything to prove that they're one of the top two teams in the country. The Pac-12 is theirs to win, but Chip Kelly is aiming the Ducks higher than that.
Tonight is the night for Oregon to show the nation what they're made of. A resurgent ASU on the road in Tempe is just the statement the Ducks need to prove they're ready to take on anyone in the second half of their season.