Oregon overpowers Arkansas State in season opener

By Matt Walks

Oregon overpowers Arkansas State in season opener

In the end, Marcus Mariota’s big starring role was more of a cameo appearance. The redshirt freshman played just a quarter and a half in his debut as the Ducks’ starting quarterback, but what a debut it was.

Oregon mowed down the Arkansas State Red Wolves 57-34 Saturday night at Autzen Stadium, behind stellar play from the usual suspects — running backs Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas and safety John Boyett — but it was Mariota’s three touchdowns and 200 yards in his first career start that fans will remember from this season opener.

“Honestly, I was very nervous, but after the first snap I was fine,” Mariota said after the game. “I had a blast.”

He had plenty of help in the backfield. Thomas was electric, scoring three touchdowns on just seven touches. The sophomore hauled in two passes and scored another on the ground, weaving throughout the Red Wolves’ secondary before leaping and spinning into the end zone.

“Anytime 6 touches the ball,” head coach Chip Kelly started before smiling and trailing off. “Just line him up and watch that kid go. … He’s playing the game faster than everyone else.”

With 605 yards of total offense for the Ducks, Thomas wasn’t a one-man show. Kenjon Barner had 66 yards and two touchdowns on less than 10 carries, and freshman Byron Marshall added another 64 in his first game as a Duck. In fact, Marshall and fellow backup Bryan Bennett handled the majority of the load in the backfield after Mariota was pulled midway through the second quarter because of the developing rout.

By the end of the game, seven Ducks had seen rushing carries, and 14 had tallied a reception.

Turning point. Despite Arkansas State’s garbage-time dominance, this matchup was essentially over just one minute, 38 seconds in, when Barner barreled into the end zone from four yards out for the game’s first points. Kelly employed the swinging-gate two point conversion — a toss from punter Jackson Rice to defensive end Dion Jordan — to make it 8-0, and the points kept coming.

Before the first quarter was half over, Mariota would toss his first two career touchdowns to Thomas and wideout Josh Huff, respectively, and the deficit would climb as high as 47 before the Red Wolves found any consistent success offensively.

Defensive consistency. With the score 50-10, Kelly acknowledged challenging younger guys at halftime to step up. Linebackers Michael Clay and Boseko Lokombo harried Red Wolves QB Ryan Aplin from the start, forcing the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year into short dump-offs and bubble screens throughout the first half. Playing behind three offensive lineman starting their first game, Aplin eventually made some mistakes, namely an interception to safety John Boyett nowhere near an intended target.

Aplin played well aside from the pick, systemically moving the Red Wolves down the field against Oregon’s backup secondary. He finished with 304 yards on 29 completions — 13 to wideout Josh Jarboe, a school record.

On the horizon. Next up for Oregon is Fresno State on Saturday. The Bulldogs crushed Weber State 37-10 in Tim DeRuyter’s first game as coach, scoring on their first three possessions. Of course, Oregon scored on their first seven possessions, with five of those seven coming in fewer than two minutes.

As more students return to campus in anticipation of classes, there is a good chance attendance will also rise. In the lead-up to the game, much was made of the danger of Autzen seeing its sellout streak snapped. While patches of the stadium remained empty, especially after the Ducks poured on the points, the announced crowd of more than 56,000 topped Autzen’s stated capacity of 54,000, preserving the streak for the 83 consecutive sellout. The streak reaches back to 1999.

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