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Thomas key for Ducks to avoid ASU upset

EUGENE, Ore. -- Who steps up if Oregon running back LaMichael James is unable to to play? And will Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler overcome the din of Autzen Stadium and lead the Sun Devils to a major upset?

Those seem like the starting points Saturday night between No. 9 Oregon and No. 18 Arizona State. James, the nation's leading rusher, is unlikely to play due to a dislocated elbow, though there's been nothing official from the Ducks. That means more weight falls on quarterback Darron Thomas and James' talented backup, Kenjon Barner.

Thomas has been a solid game manager this season, throwing 15 touchdown passes with just two interceptions. But his 208 yards passing per game rank 10th in the Pac-12. He also is running out of the Ducks spread-option a lot less, which coach Chip Kelly admitted this week is, in part, by design. More was expected out of a quarterback who won second-team All-Pac-10 honors in 2010.

Of course, if all Thomas needs to do is hand it to Barner -- or true freshman backs De'Anthony Thomas or Tra Carson -- then that's what he'll do. The Sun Devils first task is to contain the nation's No. 5 rushing offense.

As for Osweiler, he made his first career start here in 2009, and it was a forgettable night. Heck, he might not remember it because he was knocked out of the game in the first quarter.

But he's a different quarterback now. Not only is he far more experienced, he's become one of the conference's most dynamic leaders, throwing for 280 yards a game with 13 touchdowns while also providing a dangerous running threat.

That said, he's not a veteran. He's been sacked 14 times -- often for holding the ball too long -- and he's tossed six interceptions. This is an environment that can cultivate those sorts of things, too.

You can be sure turnovers will be a key, and the Sun Devils probably need to win that battle to notch the upset.

In the Ducks' 42-31 win last year in Tempe, they won the turnover battle 7-2. That's a big advantage in an 11-point game.

This season, the Sun Devils lead the Pac-12 in turnover margin at plus-8. They are particularly good at forcing them. Their 18 takeaways are five more than any other conference team. Oregon is minus-1 in turnovers, gaining just four.

Mistakes and playmaking. Games typically come down to those two things.

The Ducks are missing one of the nation's top playmakers. Will that make enough of a difference that the Sun Devils can emerge victorious?