The Countdown. The first one of the year. The first day of college football is behind us and wow, was that a rough one for Washington State. I wish nothing but the best for the Cougars, they've had enough of a rough time the past few years and I'm sure that will be the worst game of the season for them. On the other hand the southern division looked great. But I digress. On to the only game that matters!
Oregon opens up their season against Arkansas State. This is not the sexiest season opener we've had, but I predict it will be entertaining nonetheless. Did you know that according to Football Outsiders F/+ stat, that Arkansas State outperformed Nevada, Washington, NC State, Iowa State, and was just below Tennessee? Sounds like little more of an exciting game right?
Let me remind people that a big loss has happened before in the season opener. In 2005 Indiana shocked Oregon at home. This is a painful memory as 2005 was my first season with season tickets and boy was it a doozy. A fellow writer came up with war cry for this season opener: REMEMBER THE INDIANA!
Arkansas State will win if:
They win the turnover battle. The best thing underdogs can do against much better opponents is take away possessions from the other team and give themselves more possessions. When Indiana beat Oregon in 2005 Indiana won the turnover battle, finishing +5 that game. Turnovers are essential to upsets.
They establish a solid running game. Arkansas State was about average last year running the football. They were below average passing according to S&P+. Gus Malzahn's offenses have been designed to spread to run. They are similar to Oregon except that the Red Wolves use more power blocking techniques and Malzahn used the H-back much more aggressively while at Auburn. This ties in to the next point but most importantly, Arkansas State has to have efficient drives. That comes from a balanced attack and with moving the ball. The best defense for the Red Wolves may be not giving the ball back to Oregon without getting some points on the board or at least making them have to move the ball 80 yards every time.
The Red Wolves Consistently Avoid 3 and Outs. Malzahn has preferred to use tempo in his offenses, not to the extent Oregon does, but tempo does have an impact on defenses. Arkansas State was 26th in the country last year with 72.7% of drives getting a first down or touchdown. As Oregon fans have seen, one teams that use tempo get a first down, then a second down, then a third down, the snowball rolling downhill gets harder to stop. Arkansas State last year was excellent at moving the ball, and for Oregon to dominate, they need to force the Red Wolves in to bad downs, creating shorter fields for Oregon's offense after the punt.
Special teams are special. Last year the Red Wolves ranked 38th in special teams efficiency. Arkansas State has to lengthen the field Oregon has to move with good coverage and shorten it's own field with returns. Moving the ball more than 70 yards half the time will not end well for Arkansas.
Oregon will win if:
Marcus Mariota is everything Oregon fans expect from him. Mariota (Maribrota?) is the first freshman to start since Danny O'Neil in 1991, a quarterback who helped take Oregon to its highest of highs in years. Marcus, or M-twice, posted ridiculous numbers in the spring game throwing 18-26, 202 yards, and a touchdown rushing and throwing with only a single interception. At 6-4 and 211 he is probably the biggest quarterback to play for Oregon under Chip Kelly. Obviously there's a reason he won the quarterback job and every fan is hoping Mariota meets or exceeds his spring game performance.
The receivers are good or great. Addicted to Quack has been somewhat critical of the receiving group in the past and has some concerns going in to the next season. Within the scope of the offense the receivers' main job is to block, but in order to defeat the cover 0 defense that some teams will use, wide receivers need to get open and catch the ball. If the receivers are dysfunctional or struggle, the Red Wolves defense could gang up on the run and rely on their experienced safeties to provide support to defensive backs.
Oregon wins the turnover battle. One of the big differentiators between the 2010 and 2011 teams was turnovers. The 2010 team was amazing at forcing turnovers at opportune moments. The 2011 team gave up the ball a little too much and the defense didn't force as many. It takes a lot of luck to get to the national title game and a lot of that is how the ball bounces but causing fumbles are a teachable skill. I want to see an Oregon defense that forces opportunities for turnovers and dominate a lower-level conference opponent and I want to see the offense take care of the ball, and of all things, not fumble the football.
Everyone stays healthy. Let's be honest, it would take a huge collapse for Oregon to lose to Arkansas State. The Ducks are 35-point favorites and while Arkansas State does post some challenges there is no reason for the Ducks to drop this one. It would be awful if for some reason a starter goes down in a game like this. In the long-term view of the season no one would really feel great about a big win if an injury to a key player occurred.