TEMPE, Ariz. – The air let out of its pounding running game, No. 5 Oregon switched gears to a big-play passing offense.
That shrink-the-field defense? No adjustment needed there.
Darron Thomas threw for 260 yards and two scores, and Oregon forced seven turnovers to pull away in the second half for a 42-31 win over Arizona State Saturday night in the Pac-10 opener for both teams.
"You see that the defense came out in the second quarter and played an awesome game, helped us out on offense," Thomas said. "We never no doubt that we weren't going to put up points."
Arizona State (2-2) held the nation's second-leading rushing team to 145 yards — 235 below its average — and used its up-tempo offense to build a 10-point lead late in a first half.
Oregon (4-0) rallied behind Thomas' arm, scoring two touchdowns in the final 2:21 and blowing it open with two more scores in the third quarter.
Thomas, who replaced dismissed starter Jeremiah Masoli in the offseason, had a four-touchdown first half against Portland State last week and added more big plays against Arizona State. He threw for 260 yards and TD passes to Josh Huff and Jeff Maehl while the running game stalled through the first three quarters.
That part was a bit of a surprise; Thomas is known more for his running abilities.
"They forced us to do some things, but I thought Darron made some plays when he really had to," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said.
The ballhawking defense simply did what it always does.
The national leader in total and scoring defense, Oregon gave up plenty of yards: 597, Arizona's most since 2000.
The Ducks just made the plays when they had to, recovering three fumbles and intercepting Steven Threet four times, including three in the fourth quarter as Arizona State kept trying to come back.
"You can't win if you turn the ball over seven times, plain and simple," said Threet, who threw for 387 yards and three touchdowns. "There's no other way to put it."
Oregon passed one road test by knocking off Tennessee and faced what figured to be a tougher one against an improved Arizona State team. On top of that, it was unusually hot, even for the desert: 100 degrees at kickoff. Even the sauna-like practice sessions early in the week could prepare the Ducks for that.
Arizona State went right at Oregon from the start, missing a field goal on its first possession and scoring on the second when Deantre Lewis flashed a burst of speed at the Ducks on the way to a 53-yard touchdown.
Then poof! The lead was gone.
LaMichael James scored 64 seconds later, taking the left corner and taking off, leaving a trail of Arizona State defenders in his wake for a 40-yard touchdown. Three plays later, Threet threw off his back foot as he was being hit and was intercepted by John Boyett, who returned it 39 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 Ducks' lead.
Arizona State didn't back down, at least not yet.
Threet hit Mike Willie on an on-the-run, on-the-money 10-yard touchdown, then Thomas Weber hit a 34-yard field goal. Threet followed with a double-teaming-splitting 28-yard touchdown pass to Kerry Taylor to put Arizona State up 24-14, one play after Omar Bolden intercepted Thomas.
Still not good enough; Oregon absorbed the blows and got back to doing what it does best, scoring quickly.
The Ducks moved 80 yards in 83 seconds their next drive for Maehl's diving 12-yard touchdown catch. Next drive, after the D held, was even quicker: three plays, 80 yards, 30 seconds, set up by a 61-yard reception by David Paulson and capped by Thomas' TD run.
Oregon, after all those big plays and momentum swings, led 28-24 at the half.
"We had them in our back pocket," said Willie, who had five catches for 74 yards. "We could have put them away. We let them back in with a couple of turnovers, and you can't give a good team opportunities. We gave them some opportunities and they turned it up."
The Ducks kept on the gas in the third quarter, scoring on a pump-faking 54-yard pass from Thomas to Huff and Boseko Lokombo's 32-yard fumble return on a sideways pass the Sun Devils thought was an incomplete pass.
Trailing 42-24, Threet tried to rally the Sun Devils, hitting Willie on a 15-yard touchdown pass. It turned out to be Arizona State's last chance; Lewis lost a fumble on the next drive and Threet had three passes intercepted in Oregon's side of the field in the fourth quarter.
"We kind of weathered the storm, Kelly said.
Like they always do.