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October 19, 2012For a game whose anticipation build up originated weeks ago, the collective air pumped into Sun Devil Stadium on Thursday came bursting out in a historically deflating fashion.
All it took was five plays from scrimmage.
In just 72 seconds, the Arizona State season elevated to new heights only to come crashing down to a low not yet felt in the Todd Graham era.
The end result, a 43-21 thrashing on national television in front of 71,004 fans, lasted well into the night but the game's outcome was sealed as soon as Will Sutton hit the turf in agony moments after kickoff.
ASU's defensive MVP and early All-American candidate forced a turnover on Oregon's second play of the game leading to a Sun Devil touchdown on the next snap. But instead of celebrating the early momentum shift with his trademark "eating" dance, he stayed down, unable to stand on his own power.
And with Sutton's abrupt exodus from the game, ASU's chances at pulling off the upset it so desperately desired went with him.
"Losing Will was very disruptive and we did a poor job being prepared for that as a staff," Graham said. "So much of what we had planned was around him and you have to have a plan B and it took us well into the game to figure out what to do there. We were scrambling and they did a great job capitalizing on that. Obviously we dropped way off there, not that we don't have other good players, but he's such a dynamic player. So that was tough and it got out of hand."
One play after the Ducks got the ball back after falling behind, 7-0, Kenjon Barner ran directly at the hole in the Sun Devils' defensive line that Sutton vacated and didn't stop until he was in the endzone 71 yards later.
Before the dust settled at half, No. 3 UO (6-0, 4-0 Pac-12) would go on to score 43 unanswered points on 329 yards rushing.
"First of all, I want to apologize to our fans, to our students, lettermen and former players, obviously we let our players down as coaches," Graham said. "We had a poor plan and had some things happen that we didn't react very well to, so I want people to understand that. We have a good team and we're headed in the right direction. It was just one game. You have to give Oregon a lot of credit. The margin of error was very small."
The Sun Devils (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12), despite being without their most impactful player, did little to rise up to the challenge after Sutton's injury. The Ducks controlled the point of attack after the initial turnover and ASU score, running the ball wherever they wanted to at will.
"It was a high-low moment for us," said ASU junior defensive back Alden Darby about the play Sutton was injured on. "We were excited about the turnover and then we looked down and saw Will Sutton, one of our key players on the d-line line, down on the field. He's a great guy. It brought us down to see all that happen in one play."
Once Sutton hobbled off the field, trainers put him on crutches effectively ending his night. Moving forward, the junior who entered the game among the country's leaders in sacks and tackles for loss will have an MRI on Friday before the team decides what is next.
But judging from how Graham spoke in his postgame press conference, the outlook doesn't appear good.
"We obviously have to replace Will," the coach said. "Adjust and move forward, you are not going to replace a guy that good, you have to move on and make some adjustments. We'll see what we have to do from here."
Besides Sutton, the Sun Devils' other main reason for starting the season 5-1, sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly, who entered the game leading the Pac-12 in passing efficiency, finished his night with the worst performance of his career by far. Completing 10-of-18 passes, Kelly threw for just 93 yards and committed two costly turnovers with poor decisions resulting in interceptions and easy UO points.
"Protecting the football is a huge thing and taking what the defense gives you," Kelly said. "For me personally, whether it is throw the ball away, hit the check down or run I just have to take better advantage of that."
Defensively, ASU recorded seven tackles for loss and got an interception return for a touchdown by junior linebacker Anthony Jones, but consistently was burnt by the big play. The Ducks totaled nine plays of 15 yards or more, leaving the Sun Devils off-balance throughout the competitive portion of the game.
"I think the hype got to a lot of guys," ASU senior safety Keelan Johnson said. "They made the guys want to play higher than their potential. Some guys played other people's assignments and got away from the things the coaches were doing. It cost us in the first half, but coming into the second half we corrected some things. As you can see, Oregon wasn't able to put up any points on the scoreboard in the second half."
ASU outscored UO from the third quarter on 14-0, but the Ducks had already called off the dogs, content with their 43 first half points and to stay healthy.
"I'm proud of our guys and how they responded, they came in at halftime and we had no bad body language and went to work, we never gave up," Graham said. "We never quit. We came back and shut them out in the second half defensively."
After Barner's 71 yard touchdown run and a two-point conversion gave UO an 8-7 advantage in the first quarter, the Sun Devils appeared poised to retake the lead with a methodical drive down field into Ducks territory. But after junior running back Marion Grice dropped an easy touch pass from Kelly for a potential first down, sophomore field kicker Alex Garoutte missed a 43 yard attempt to give UO the ball right back.
Four minutes later, UO freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota hit fellow freshman Bralon Addison for a six yard score in the endzone.
That's when the floodgates really opened.
In a span of four minutes and 38 seconds between the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second, the Ducks scored 28 points.
Mariota unconventionally caught a two yard score and ran for an 86 yard touchdown while Barner tallied two more rushing scores, each from one yard out and set up by a Kelly interception.
"On the first one I just under threw him and threw behind him and it just got away from me, the second one it got tipped and he made a great play," Kelly said of his two picks. "They were blitzing three and four and dropping seven or eight so they were covering the flats or hooks and deep coverage. They had a coverage game for us and if that defense does that I just have to go out and run."
After Jones' pick six, ASU freshman running back D.J. Foster tacked on a touchdown with four minutes left in the fourth quarter with a nifty catch and run for 23 yards while maneuvering through the UO defense.
Even with the demoralizing loss, the Sun Devils still sit atop the Pac-12 South with important games upcoming against UCLA and Southern California. Once the game was out of reach Thursday, players told Graham they will get another shot at the Ducks down the road, which can only happen if both teams advance to the conference title game.
"I had guys come up to me on the sideline patting me on the back and saying 'Coach, we'll see these guys again.' And I hope we do," Graham said. "That's our mindset. I told these kids they're the best team I've ever coached and I said it before the game and again after the game."