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Erickson: Oregon 'May Be The Best Football Team In The Country'

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Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson began his Monday news conference with those very words. That's some big-time praise for the Oregon Ducks, ranked No. 5 in the AP Top 25 college football poll. ASU hosts Oregon this Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

The Ducks will likely be the best team the Sun Devils see all season. Why? Oregon's offense, already established as its strength, is racking up the points and yards once again at 3-0 in 2010. But there's more to the Ducks this year that perhaps wasn't among their strengths in years past.

"On both sides of the football and in their kicking game, they're so balanced," Erickson said. "It's hard to decide what their strengths are."

What a way for the Sun Devils (2-1) to open Pac-10 play. 

Offensively, the Ducks are explo sive with a tandem of quality running backs in LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner. They have a combined 562 rushing yards in three games, and James missed the first game of the season while Barner didn't finish the first quarter last week against Portland State because of a groin injury.

"Their running backs are guys that quick-strike on you all the time," Erickson said. "I've never seen a team, offensively, that gets more big plays in its running game than the University of Oregon has this year."

Barner is a difference-maker as a return specialist, too, with one touchdown on a punt return. He has six touchdowns and 504 all-purpose yards already this season.

Quarterback Darron Thomas is a dual threat, having passed for 562 yards and rushed for 97 this season. He's got a solid receiving target in Jeff Maehl, a playmaker in the open field. Thomas is the new Oregon signal-caller in place of Jeremiah Masoli, who led Oregon to the Pac-10 title and the Rose Bowl in 2009.

"When you force him to keep it or you force him to throw it, he's awfully good," Erickson said of Thomas. "He's faster than Masoli was, in my opinion. He's a different kind of runner than Masoli, but he's a better thrower. So they've got all the tools. It's amazing to watch them play."

Does Erickson respect the Ducks or is this a lot of coachspeak? Erickson sounded pretty sincere, and he made good points. Oregon has shut out two opponents, New Mexico and Portland State, and come back from a 13-3 deficit at Tennessee to rout the Vols 48-13. 

That says something about Oregon's defense, which doesn't get half the recognition the offense receives.

"The thing that they're underrated in after watching them, and I've always thought this, is that they're extremely athletic on defense," Erickson said. "They've got great speed ... they kind of get lost in the offensive success they've had. (Defensive coordinator Nick) Aliotti does a great job with them. They'll bring it a lot. We'll see a lot of blitz from them, but they've got extremely good athletes." 

The Ducks are led on defense by linebackers Spencer Paysinger and Casey Matthews, son of former NFL star Clay Matthews. Brandon Bair and Kenny Rowe are the top pass rushers on the defensive line, and ASU quarterback Steven Threet has to account for Oregon's secondary, which is loaded with experienced players on the depth chart, including safeties Eddie Pleasant, John Boyett and Javes Lewis and cornerback Talmadge Jackson. 

On Monday, Threet was in a film room watching tape from the Oregon-Arizona game last season, a game the Ducks came back to win in overtime in Tucson. 

The Sun Devils (2-1) will come in relatively healthy with a sour taste in their mouths after a one-point loss at Wisconsin last Saturday, a game they probably should have won. Having emerged from that test with something a bit more than a moral victory, ASU might make this one a close one on Saturday.

"There was a lot of sad guys on that plane (from Wisconsin)," Erickson said, "which, to me, is a plus because they care. They should care. They should feel bad. We all feel bad. All we can do is put it behind us."

Erickson sees improvement in his offensive line. He liked what he saw from Threet Saturday in terms of taking hits, showing toughness and being a leader. "I like his feeling for the game, his commitment to the game, his commitment to his teammates," Erickson said.

Against the Ducks, Erickson seems to be looking for any advantage he can get. He can only hope that his team's speed matches that of Oregon, and called the Ducks and Arizona the two fastest teams in the conference. He's even picked wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad's brain for any insight on the Ducks' up-tempo offense, though its been two years since Pflugrad was a Duck. He transferred to ASU in 2009.

Erickson said the crowd can make a difference. 

"Having played at Oregon over the years and just the experience that we had at Wisconsin, the fans make such a huge difference," he said. "You get that stadium, it doesn't even have to be full. You get those people excited about what's going on during a football game ... the motivation that that has for our players is unbelievable. Hopefully we'll have a heck of a crowd this week. We just need to get as many people as we can and get that thing rocking, and give us an advantage."