Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 10/19/12
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Plenty of skeptics figured Arizona State would come back to Earth against No. 3 Oregon on Thursday night. Few expected it to happen on the second play of the game. After losing star defensive tackle Will Sutton to a knee injury in the game's first minute, the Sun Devils were exposed by a vastly superior team in a 43-21 loss in which Oregon scored six touchdowns in the first 19 minutes to quickly quiet any talk of an upset. "We just got whipped," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "I don't know any way to say it other than that." The play on which Sutton was hurt served as both the high point and low point for the Sun Devils (5-2, 3-1 Pac-12). Sutton forced a fumble on the play and ASU recovered, setting up a one-play touchdown drive and a surprising 7-0 lead 49 seconds into the game. But his injury took a toll beyond his absence. "It was a high-low moment for us," junior safety Alden Darby said. "We were excited about the turnover and then we looked down and saw Will Sutton, one of our key players on the D-line, down on the field. Hes a great guy. It brought us down to see all that happen in one play." Oregon (7-0, 4-0) made Sutton's absence glaring immediately. As Sutton sat on the trainers table, Ducks running back Kenjon Barner went right for the gap where Sutton would have been, rushing 71 yards for a touchdown. From there, the rout was on. ASU didn't score again until the fourth quarter. Oregon scored 43 straight points, all of by the middle of the second quarter, tripling the Sun Devils' average points allowed per game by halftime. The blowout exposed a defense that had not been tested by an elite offense and an offense that had pummeled lesser defenses. "I did a poor job of getting our guys ready, and we did a poor job of adjusting to some adversity," Graham said. "You find out what you're made of when you get hit in the mouth, and we got hit by a hammer tonight." The ASU offense, which entered the night averaging 479 yards per game, mustered just 139 against Oregon's first-team defense. Even with the Ducks in cruise control with second- and third-string players in the fourth quarter, the unit was stopped twice in the red zone, opting to go for it on fourth down rather than kick meaningless field goals. The defense, too, regressed to the mean. Giving up a Pac-12-best 272.7 yards per game coming in, the Sun Devils allowed 377 in the first half Thursday and 454 overall, including 406 on the ground. Darby said the game gave the defense a better gauge of its ability. "This is a game that you learn from," Darby said. "Nobody likes losing, but there's things you can take from a loss." First-year starting quarterback Taylor Kelly's ability, too, may become a bit clearer. As much talk as there was of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota potentially getting rattled in a road atmosphere, it was Kelly who was shaken, going 10 for 18 passing for 93 yards with two interceptions. "Protecting the football is a huge thing," Kelly said. "Taking what the defense gives you, for me personally, whether it is throw the ball away, hit the checkdown or run, I just have to take better advantage of that." For Graham and the upstart Sun Devils, the honeymoon is over. The first half of the season brought a surprising performance, one that has ASU still just one win away from bowl eligibility. Kelly was masterful, Sutton was dominant and freshman D.J. Foster displayed heaps of potential. The 5-1 start also showed fans a level of discipline not seen in any recent season. Save the kicking game, Graham's overhaul succeeded early in every facet. But now, with a better read on what these Sun Devils are, the pressure is really on. ASU may have to continue on without Sutton -- and perhaps without defensive end Junior Onyeali, who suffered a shoulder injury in the first half -- for some period of time. Those losses would be significant heading into matchups with UCLA and ranked opponents Oregon State and USC. But more than anything, ASU will have to rebound as a team from the total devastation that occurred Thursday night. "We have a good football team and it's just one game, so we go to next week," Graham said. "This next week is a big, big game in the South and even with a poor showing tonight, were still in first place. We have to go to work, and UCLA is the next one up, and we have to figure out how to win that one." Sutton's loss, which does not appear likely to be a short-term one, could prove a greater loss than Thursday's game itself. He was the heart of the defense, leading it with 14 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. There also isn't much depth behind him, with nose tackle Mike Pennel suspended indefinitely and defensive tackle Corey Adams out since the start of the season with a back injury. Graham admitted Thursday that Sutton's loss threw off his entire defensive game plan. He took total blame, admitting mistakes made as he tried to adjust for the loss. "So much of our game plan is around him," Graham said. "That's not an excuse, but we were scrambling, and they did a great job capitalizing on that. ... They are not a team you want to be scrambling like that on." The injury displayed ASU's razor-thin depth, which hadn't previously been tested. To that end, Oregon coach Chip Kelly said it best regarding the difference between teams like his and ASU's. "Part of being a good team in this league is youve got to be able to weather," Kelly said. "If you've got some depth and you've got some backups that can come in and act like they're starters, then youve got a shot." In that sense and virtually every other, Thursday's game was a reality check for the Sun Devils. Sure, they got off to a better start than expected under Graham, but it's clear now that they aren't yet ready to compete with college football's -- or even the Pac-12's -- elite teams. Still, a reminder that all is not lost seems appropriate. Few would have expected ASU to be 5-2 after seven games, and a Pac-12 South title is still in play. That won't be easy, certainly, considering that would mean beating USC on the road, but the Sun Devils remain confident. "You can either hang your heads and come back and faceplant the rest of the season, or you can bounce back like a champion," Darby said. "We've still got the same goal in mind: Pac-12 championship. We're going to see (Oregon) again." Whether or not a rematch occurs on Nov. 30 will depend on which team emerges from Thursday's debacle. Will it be the one that was overmatched in every way by the dominant Ducks or the one that beat Cal impressively on the road? The answer may be somewhere in between.
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