The transition to Marcus Mariota for the Duck offense couldn’t have gone any smoother.
It looked just like last season.
Mariota played most of the first half, going 18-for-22 for an even 200 yards and three touchdowns en route to a 57-34 win over Arkansas State that wasn’t as close as the scoreboard indicates. The Ducks dropped a 50 spot on the Red Wolves in the first half and played everybody on the roster in the second half.
Oregon scored on all seven of Mariota’s drives. The Ducks opened the game with a seven-play, 73-yard drive that ended on a four-yard Kenyon Barner touchdown. The senior tailback, who will shoulder the load this season after the departure of LaMichael James, gained 66 yards on nine carries and two touchdowns.
“Overall it was a good game,” said head coach Chip Kelly. “We got a lot of players in, so that will give us some good film to study next week. We have some areas to work on, but overall I am happy with the way our guys played tonight.”
The second drive gave a glimpse of Mariota’s touch with the football when he found De’Anthony Thomas in the end zone threading the needle into a window where only Thomas – despite being surrounded by three defenders – could catch the ball.
With all the hype of Mariota making his debut, the Duck defense wanted to make sure that they were not forgotten and it was the defense that set up Oregon’s third touchdown when Ifo Ekpre-Olomu forced a fumble that was recovered by Michael Clay at the Red Wolf 22-yard line.
Mariota made short work of the Arkansas State defense, finding TE Colt Lyerla for 12 yards and then Josh Huff in the back of the end zone for the score to give the Ducks a commanding 22-0 lead just seven minutes into the game.
“Marcus really had command of our offense and it truly showed today, ” Kelly said. “I’m happy with his performance. Marcus showed a great deal of poise out there, it was really fun to watch him play tonight.”
Oregon found itself with the ball once again two minutes later and “sustained” a drive that ended with another touchdown, this time it was Barner scoring from 17 yards out. He turned the corner on the right side and outran the Red Wolves to the corner of the end zone.
With 2:54 still remaining in the opening period, the Red Wolves may as well have just got back on the bus.
It was more of the same in the second quarter.
Thomas found the end zone again on a 12-yard Mariota strike. Although the score 36-0, Thomas’ night wasn’t quite finished. He added a 33-yard touchdown run that was similar to his punt return last season against Washington State where he jived and juked his way to the end zone for the 43-3 lead.
He wound up with four catches for 55 yards and two scores as well as three carries for 64 yards and one touchdown. Thomas wasn’t able to show his kick returning prowess all night as the Red Wolves would either kick the ball off short, forcing a fair catch by an up man or punted the ball out of bounds.
Mariota and Co. added one more score thanks to freshman running back Byron Marshall with an assist from his quarterback. Stopped a couple yards short of the goal line on fourth down Mariota lowered his shoulder and drove Marshall into the end zone for the first touchdown of his college career.
With the game completely out of hand, it was time for Bryan Bennett to show himself and he came in to a rousing roar from the 56,144 Autzen faithful, Oregon’s 83 consecutive sellout.
The entire second half was played by the “twos” and “threes” and to Arkansas State’s credit, they didn’t fold up the tent. The Red Wolves chewed up nearly eight minutes of the third quarter with a 14-play, 74-yard drive that ended with Brian Davis’ 29-yard field goal.
After the Ducks stalled again, the Red Wolves put together their best drive of the night, going 55 yards in six plays that ended when quarterback Ryan Aplin found Josh Jarboe for a six-yard touchdown completion to make the score 50-20.
Bennett and the reserves finally got into a rhythm at the start of the fourth quarter with an offensive strategy that could be called the Marshall Plan. The freshman from San Jose carried the ball a total of 24 times for 65 yards. But it was Bennett to Rahsaan Vaughn for seven yards that capped off the Ducks’ final scoring drive, a nine-play, 49-yard drive for the 57-20 lead.
Arkansas State added to their total when Carlos McCants made a diving catch in the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown reception to make the score 57-27.
The Red Wolves weren’t finished, although most of the fans and most certainly the television viewers were. Arkansas State’s Frankie Jackson rushed for the bulk of the yards in a seven-play, 75-yard drive with Aplin scoring from the one-yard line for the 57-34 final margin.
Aplin finished the game 29-for-44, 305 yards and three touchdowns through the air and one on the ground.
The Ducks will host Fresno State next Saturday that is scheduled for a 3:30 kickoff on the Pac-12 Network.
~ Don Smalley