CORVALLIS, Ore. - Arizona State beat Oregon State Saturday. Not that you care. USC is coming. Matt Leinart. Reggie Bush. That infernal fight song. Gentlemen, start your tailgating. If ever a Pac-10 opener seemed like a warm-up act, this was it.
Oh, the Sun Devil coaches said all the right things in the days leading up to the contest— one game at a time, we’re not looking ahead, yada, yada yada — and the players took care of business, dispatching the Beavers, 42-24.
But you can bet that the Devils’ thoughts turned to the No. 1 Trojans even before they dumped their sweaty shoulder pads on the locker room floor.
This is what ASU has anticipated since its 45-7 loss to USC last year. A nationally televised game. Keith Jackson on the call. A matchup so enticing ESPN might send its "College GameDay" crew of Chris Fowler, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit to Tempe.
Now, a cynic might say the Devils should be careful what they wish for — did you see USC drop 45 on undefeated Oregon Saturday? — but the buzz on campus will reverberate throughout the Valley, and for a moment, at least, ASU will be king again.
Saturday’s win wasn’t as simple as the scoreboard indicated.
The Sun Devils turned a precarious 14-3 halftime lead into a rout with 28 points in the third quarter. If you’re scoring at home, their 188 points through four games (an average of 47 points per game) is a school record.
But to think ASU will continue to play ArenaBall all season is folly.
The Pac-10 is too competitive and, lest we forget, Oregon State isn’t USC. Or California and UCLA, for that matter.
There will come a time this season — more than likely against USC — when ASU’s offense isn’t a joystick in quarterback Sam Keller’s hand.
Then we’ll find out whether the Devils are a team with New Year’s Day aspirations or a team that will play on New Year’s Day.
That doesn’t diminish what ASU accomplished Saturday. The Sun Devils were 3-13 in Pac-10 road games under Koetter, and the Beavers had the best home record in the conference the past five years.
To win — and win going away — is another sign of the progress ASU has made under coach Dirk Koetter. The Sun Devils are to the point that consecutive winning seasons should be a footnote rather than a headline.
Before fans begin obsessing about USC — if they haven’t already, that is — they should take time time to appreciate the performance Keller and the defense came up with Saturday.
Keller injured his left leg in the second quarter and took a beating from Oregon State’s defense in the second half yet completed 19-of-36 passes for 365 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions.
In doing so, Keller cleared the one hurdle he had not yet encountered. How would he fare on the road and in a game when the first-down markers weren’t merely nuisances on the way to the end zone?
The defense came up with six turnovers — two inside its 40-yard line, one in its end zone — and sacked Oregon State quarterback Matt Moore seven times.
Praising ASU’s defense in September is like discovering fool’s gold. Last year, the Sun Devils allowed more than 14 points just once in their first five games.
In the final seven games, beginning with USC, they didn’t hold a team to under 23 points.
But this defense should hold up better. Coordinator Bill Miller is putting the players in position where they can make plays — he had linebacker Dale Robinson line up as a defensive end in a nickel package Saturday, ala Terrell Suggs — and the Sun Devils are deeper than they’ve been in the past,
One statistic best defines ASU’s defense: The Sun Devils have committed five turnovers this season, yet teams haven’t scored a single point off the miscues.
Now, ASU isn’t going to go all Baltimore Ravens and shut down USC. But the defense shouldn’t collapse late in the season, either. Three-and-a-half hours after Saturday’s game began — and with 8:32 still left in the fourth quarter — Keller’s night was done. He took off his helmet and kneeled on the sideline. I don’t know what he was thinking about, but I can guess. The same thing you’re thinking about. USC.