In Chip Kelly’s five years at Oregon, three as head coach, the Ducks have nearly done it all. Oregon has won three straight conference championship, been to two Rose Bowls, winning one and made a national championship appearance.
Kelly said when he turned down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that he had some unfinished business left in Eugene. The only thing he hasn’t done is win a BCS title. Oregon’s quest to Miami starts Saturday at Arkansas St. at 7:30 pm on ESPN.
The Ducks start out the season as the No. 5 team in the nation and Chip Kelly will hand the keys to his warp speed attack to redshirt freshman Marcus Mariotta. Mariotta beat out sophomore Bryan Bennett for the starting nod with the decision being announced as the Ducks closed fall camp and began preparations for the Red Wolves.
The selection of the freshman from Hawai’i could be seen as a bit of an upset since Bennett did play well in meaningful minutes last year. Against Arizona State, Bennett rallied the Ducks to a second half win after Darron Thomas went down with a knee injury and he was given the start at Colorado – a 45-2 win.
Mariota hasn’t taken a single snap in a college game, but he was very impressive in the Spring Game, going 18-of-26 for 202 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 99 yards and two touchdowns, including an 82-yarder for the score.
After the decision was announced, rumors swirled around the Casanova Center that Bennett would look for greener pastures elsewhere.
Latest word is that Kelly and/or Bennett’s teammates convinced Bennett to remain. It is a long season and injuries at the position sprinkle the recent past. With a weak non-league schedule, it is a sure bet Bennett won’t be spending his entire time on the sideline holding a clipboard. If Oregon is to live up to the preseason prognostications it is a safe bet to say the Ducks will need Bennett at some point in year.
“Bryan Bennett could start for most teams in the country and we’re very fortunate to have him on our team,” Kelly said of his backup signal caller. “Right now, we feel that Marcus gives us a better chance of winning against Arkansas State.”
The Red Wolves might not have a lot of tape of Mariota to go over, but that same problem goes for the Ducks. Arkansas State made a splash prying Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn away from the Tigers to take over their program. As most will recall, Malzahn was the architect of the Cam Newton led offensive juggernaut that Ducks in the 2011 BCS title game.
“We’ve some familiarity with them on the offensive side of ball since we played (against Malzahn’s offense) in the national championship game,” Kelly said. “Schematically we understand what those guys do, but how they implement that with their team, you won’t know until you see them.”
The Red Wolves won’t have Cam Newton under center like Auburn did, but Arkansas State does have senior quarterback Ryan Aplin, who is the most decorated quarterback in Red Wolves history. He holds 16 school records. The reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year can beat a team with his legs as well as his arm. The 6-1, 205-pounder from Tampa, Florida rushed for 802 yards (a net of 588) and 10 touchdowns. He also threw at a 64 percent clip (304-of-476), 3,588 yards (276 average) and 19 touchdowns. He did, however, throw 16 interceptions.
“I think their strength is their receivers, along with Aplin,” Kelly said. “But really, it’s how is Gus going to deploy those guys. It’s a talented football team. They kept up with Illinois and Virginia Tech and made a run in their league.”
Arkansas State is coming off a very successful season that saw the Red Wolves finish 10-3 and win the Sun Belt Conference. ASU ended its season on a down note with a 38-20 loss to Northern Illinois in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
The Red Wolves do bring back their No. 2 and 3 receivers from last year, but they will sorely miss Dwayne Frampton, who caught 94 balls a year ago for 1,156 yards and six touchdowns. Aplin’s new favorite targets are not bad either. Josh Jarboe caught 54 balls in 2011 for 730 yards and two touchdowns. Taylor Stockemer led the Red Wolves with seven touchdowns.
Arkansas State isn’t known for running the ball a whole lot, but sophomore Frankie Jackson does return after finding paydirt the hard way six times last year. The Red Wolves were hoping that potential transfer Michael Dyer from Auburn would carry much of the load, but he was let go due to team infractions. Cornerback Tres Houston was also dismissed from the team during fall camp.
If Arkansas State is somewhat of a mystery to Oregon, the same is true for the first-year head coach of the Red Wolves.
“There are still a lot of questions we need to answer,” said Malzahn after a practice last week. “We have not seen our guys actually perform against another team. We at least we have some information on how the older guys react, but there are a lot of these young guys and new or inexperienced players that we don’t know how they are going to react. So, we’ll be learning probably the first four games about our team. We’ll have a lot of chances – good, bad and in between – to see how they react to certain situations. We’ll be a work in progress.”
A “work in progress” generally does not fair well against Oregon, especially inside Autzen Stadium.
~ Don Smalley