Though the season would end on happier terms for both the Ducks and for Clemens, the visit to Tempe was a distinct step backward as two interceptions in the first quarter allowed the Sun Devils to jump out to a 14-0 lead on their way to giving Oregon a 59-14 thumping. A telling statistic from this nightmare had the Sun Devils converting 11 of 15 third down situations. It was that bad.
That embarrassment, and another two games later in Seattle, served as the low points of a season that looked to get away from the Ducks, though they were able to temper that disappointment with a nice run through California, UCLA and the Beavers to finish that year 8-5. That rebound coincided with Clemens ascending to the number one quarterback role late in the Cal game and prefaced the hopes Oregon held for 2004.
Setting order to a season that opened with losses to Indiana and Oklahoma would have been a lot to expect of a victory over the Sun Devils when they visited in '04. Two completely blown coverages in the secondary allowed Arizona State to tack the first conference loss – and the third in their first four games – on the Ducks. Oregon would win their next four before coming up short at California followed by a season ending melt-down against UCLA and Oregon State.
Much is expected of the Sun Devils this coming season and October's visit to Tempe will serve as a proving ground for Oregon's season as well. The week prior to Oregon's visit, Arizona State will host USC. Coupled with the result of the Duck/Trojan tilt two week's earlier, this game will either solidify a leadership position in the conference race or clarify the pecking order behind USC.
Though it is rare to benefit from an injury to your number one quarterback, ASU head coach Dirk Koetter saw reason for optimism this season when Sam Keller (42-71, 606 yds, 5 TD, 1 INT) played with confidence and poise after Andrew Walter was injured in last years rivalry weekend loss to Arizona. The bowl practice period allowed Keller to use those repetitions in advance of their Sun Bowl victory over Perdue to jump start the learning curve that would not have begun until spring practice had Walter not been injured.
Returning with Keller are perhaps the conferences' two most dangerous receivers – and yes that does recognize the talent returning for USC – in WR's Derek Hagan (83 rec, 1248 yds, 10 TD) and Terry Richardson (45 rec, 679 yds, 6 TD) and TE Zach Miller (56 rec, 552 yds, 6 TD).
With four returning starters on the offensive line, the Sun Devils expect to provide time for those receivers to dissect the defense and for Keller to find them when they come open.
A murder accusation lodged against last year's leading returning running back Loren Wade leaves ASU dealing with an emotional aftershock that may persist well into the season as well as with sophomore Rudy Burgess (404 yards on 77 carries) as the leading candidate for the starting role.
Defensively, the Sun Devils return seven starters and will be strong at linebacker and defensive line. If an offense can protect their quarterback from the rush and the blitzes from the front seven the ASU secondary will be vulnerable, though they do return experience at each of the positions.
A win in the desert would position the Ducks for a strong run at the upper reaches of the conference standings, whatever their fortunes versus USC two weeks earlier. Should Oregon find a victory over Fresno State lends a resurgence of home field advantage that can be used to best advantage in the USC contest and arrive in Tempe sporting an unblemished record, a win in this game would serve to elevate the Ducks into the Top-10 and the BCS conversations.
And vice versa.
Till the next time…