Sun Devil crowd will challenge Mariota

Oregon doesn't have an obvious weakness. It's good on offense. It's good on defense. Special teams have been only fair to middling, but when your scoring margin is 32.3 points per game, things don't have to be perfect for them to seem pretty darn good.

The No. 3 Ducks are visiting Arizona State on Thursday, and Sun Devils coach Todd Graham has fingered a potential weakness. It's the sixth word of the previous sentence: "visiting."

Oregon is not playing in Autzen Stadium, where it often seems untouchable, and Graham believes that could be an issue in the game, particularly for Ducks redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota.

"How I look at this game is that they don't have a quarterback [Darron Thomas] that has gone through [two] years without losing on the road," Graham said. "This is [Mariota's] first year; this is his first game to play on the road. Their starting quarterback didn't play last year. So that is how we are looking at it."

While Mariota and the Ducks have, technically, played a road game -- their matchup with Washington State was at CenturyLink Field in Seattle -- that's not the same as what is expected to be a packed and boisterous Sun Devil Stadium, where fans will don black to create the newly popular "blackout" scene.

Mariota has been just short of outstanding this season. He's ranked 21st in the nation in passing efficiency, connecting on 68 percent of his throws, with 15 touchdown passes -- second most in the Pac-12 -- and just five interceptions. He's also rushed for 221 yards and a score.

Yet his worst game was against the Cougars, in which he tossed two interceptions. His passer rating in that game of 107.8 is nearly 50 points less than his season's rating. That number against the Cougs wouldn't rank among the nation's top 100 quarterbacks.

So it's fair to say Mariota has answered a lot of questions as a new starter, but his playing his worst game of the season in his only road date means one still endures.

Mariota can expect the Sun Devils to gang up against the Ducks' potent running game and dare the Ducks to pass. The ASU defense, by the way, ranks second in the nation in sacks with 4.33 per game.

Mariota knows as well as anyone he didn't play well against Washington State, but he puts the blame on himself, not the crowd.

"Just missed those passes," he said of the interceptions. "Those were just not very good decisions. That's the stuff that comes from experience."

A week later in the blowout victory over Washington, Mariota had four touchdowns and one interception.

Oregon coach Chip Kelly has repeatedly said one of Mariota's best qualities is that he doesn't make the same mistake twice, and his signal-caller doesn't seem like the sort who gets rattled. That was something Kelly picked up on when he was recruiting Mariota out of Honolulu.

"His demeanor. A very poised, very mature young man," Kelly said when asked what he liked about Mariota in recruiting, other than athletic ability.

"Got a very good head on his shoulders. He's smart. Very cerebral. His mental makeup and his character, I think to us as a coaching staff, is probably more impressive than his athletic ability. And his athletic ability we thought was outstanding."

The soft-spoken Mariota has an almost sleepy mellowness, but he said he's not afraid to speak up when necessary.

"It depends on the situation," he said. "If a situation calls for me to be a little more vocal, to be a little louder, then I can step up to that situation. My personality kind of reflects how I'm on the field."

Further, Mariota said he is energized by the notion that the home crowd is going to be riding him, hoping to distract and then intimidate him.

"The competitor in me enjoys going on the road, competing inside someone else's place," he said. "There's no place like home, there's no place like Autzen Stadium, but to go out to a different stadium, to experience a new atmosphere. I think Thursday's game will be a pretty lively atmosphere."

This game presents a big opportunity for both teams. Arizona State is trying to surge into the national picture. Oregon is trying to again position itself for the BCS title game.

Mariota could be poised for his "Hello, world" moment, but for that to happen, he's going to have to hush the crowd in Tempe.