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September 4, 2010

Offense under microscope in opener

During ESPN's Friday night telecast of Arizona's 41-2 drubbing of Toledo the network's broadcast crew talked about the Pac-10 having numerous impressive offensive teams but proposed it would be a team also possessing a stout defense which would finish atop the conference standings.

Color commentator Rod Gilmore ticked off a number of teams he thought might be capable defensively, specifically Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA and Arizona.

Curiously absent from the discussion: Arizona State, a team that led the Pac-10 last year in total defense, passing defense and rushing defense and finished second in scoring defense and returns seven players with starting experience.

It probably isn't much of a reach to conclude the reason ASU wasn't mentioned has nothing to do with its defense.

The Sun Devils' offense was so anemic last season the team was almost universally picked to finish near the bottom of the Pac-10 in the various preseason polls and publications despite returning what is unquestionably one of the league's most talented defenses.

So while others in the conference need to demonstrate they'll be sound defensively, ASU must prove it can put points on the scoreboard. Clearly, in a Pac-10 historically dominated by potent offenses -- and with offense typically being more prominent in the minds of prognosticators and fans -- the Sun Devils aren't considered much of a threat.

That's why the program's opener against Portland State is under a such a microscope locally.

In the last two seasons it was apparent right out of the gate the team's offense wasn't imposing enough to put the team in contention for a high profile bowl game much less the Pac-10 championship.

In 2008, the Sun Devils modestly won their opener over Northern Arizona, 30-13 and two weeks later shockingly lost 23-20 to UNLV. Before even mid-September it was clear the offense wasn't going to give the team enough margin for error.

Last season, ASU's offensive woes were again hinted at in the opener, a 50-3 win over an atrocious Idaho State team in which the team netted a modest 407 yards and had a defensive touchdown and five Thomas Weber field goals.

Its next time out, ASU beat Louisiana-Monroe 38-14 but had just 15 first downs and 327 yards, a clear harbinger of what was to come. ASU scored 30 points in a game just once more the rest of the year in what was one of its worst seasons in the modern era.

The minutiae of Portland State -- first year coach taking over after two win season in 2009 and implementing the pistol offense -- is largely irrelevant. If the game is even remotely close it's a doomsday scenario for ASU football in 2010 anyway.

The importance of this game is in getting a sense of whether -- as anticipated -- it will be a more productive ASU offense than the last couple years and if so how much.

In 2007, the Sun Devils opened with a balanced 520 yards of offense in a 33-7 win over San Jose State and proceeded to score more than 30 points eight times on the season.

That's the type of minimum production ASU must demonstrate it is capable of against a lowly Portland State team whose best hope is not to get embarrassed.

Fans and media are going to need to see first-year offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's no huddle system generate a minimum of 500 yards, and do so rather effortlessly in order to come away with any decidedly positive feelings about whether the program is on the verge of turning things around on that side of the football in the year ahead.

USC had 524 total yards and 49 points in its 49-36 win over Hawaii Thursday and Arizona threw up 518 yards against Toledo. Both opponents are without question superior to Portland State.

So the gauntlet has been thrown down. ASU needs to generate 500-plus yards of total offense easily and efficiently in what should be a decidedly one-sided game from the outset.

Do that, and maybe then the talking heads will start to give ASU's defense the recognition it deserves.


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