EUGENE, OR - SEPTEMBER 1: Marcus Mariota #8 of the Oregon Ducks throws a pass in the second quarter against the Arkansas State Red Wolves on September 1, 2012 at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images)
Some people on the East Coast are going to wake up, see Oregon gave up 37 points to Arkansas State, and wonder how the Red Wolves managed to keep the game interesting. That'll happen when a team pulls their starters with eight minutes to go in the second quarter up 50-3. The final score is meaningless, as Oregon's first string obliterated an overmatched opponent, leaving no doubt as to the final outcome just minutes after taking the field.
The offense was efficient from the first snap. Despite taking a sack, Marcus Mariota marched the Oregon offense 73 yards in seven plays, capped by a six yard Kenjon Barner touchdown. Mariota hit three different receivers on the drive, all three throws perfectly placed. Oregon capped the score with a two-point conversion, and 98 seconds into the game, the Ducks were on top for good. It would be lather, rinse, repeat, with the Ducks scoring on their first seven drives, at which point the starters were yanked, content to go vanilla and sit on their insurmountable lead.
In a game in which everyone knew Oregon would win, Mariota was the clear storyline. A redshirt freshman having just won a quarterback battle against a veteran is always going to draw major attention. Mariota showed everybody why he won the job, delivering a performance that will serve as football porn to Duck fans for the next week. In leading the Ducks to touchdowns on all seven of his drives, the freshman connected on 19 of his 23 attempts to eight different receivers for three scores. Every read was right, and even the balls that weren't caught were catchable. But even more impressive than the counting stats was Mariota's demeanor. It didn't change. Mariota never got up emotionally. He acted like this was expected and that he had been here before. People will say it was just Arkansas State, but Arkansas State is no 2010 New Mexico, and was a ten win team last season. It was one of the best quarterback performances I have ever seen, period. That it came from a freshman playing in his first game really says all you need to know about this kid's potential.
The other starters played very well also. Kenjon Barner had a couple of touchdowns on nine carries. DeAnthony Thomas had 114 combined rushing and receiving yards and three scores. The starting receivers all looked very capable. The offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage (the one sack appearing to be a missed block by the running back). 50-3 really says it all, and it was everything you could want out of an offense that was clearly a few levels above the defense they were playing. Not to be ignored, Oregon's starting defense was pretty stellar as well. On Arkansas State's first seven drives, they only managed a single field goal, that they had to string together 12 plays for. In the other six possessions, the Red Wolves had three three and outs, two first downs, and a turnover.
Its always kind of a letdown when a team starts pulling the starters, especially before halftime. The reasons you have to do it are obvious--its being a good sportsman, you don't want anybody to get hurt, etc. However, the fan in you wants to see the team put triple figures on the scoreboard, because you know they can. Instead, you're treated to third and fourth stringers with really vanilla playbooks slogging along until the clock hits zero. Its a good problem to have, to be sure, but there is a part of you that feel disappointed with the whole deal.
Bryan Bennett would lead the crew the rest of the way. Bennett performed very well. Keep in mind that he was playing with the backups and a much more limited playbook, and the stats look pretty good. 10-17, 103 yards, a touchdown, and a pick that was a result of a well thrown pass that went through a receiver's hands. Oregon would be a very good team with Bryan Bennett as their starting quarterback. However, it was really clear in the game why he didn't win the job. He wasn't as accurate as Mariota. His demeanor wasn't as collected. This isn't a knock on Bennett, who would start at the vast majority of schools in the country, but a major praise of Mariota for being so poised at such a young age. While the relative performances of the quarterbacks won't have anybody second-guessing the outcome of the QB battle, Bennett showed us exactly what we expected, and exactly what we needed to see--that if Mariota misses time this season, the Oregon offense is still in extremely capable hands.
As was said before, Bennett had only one scoring drive, leading a very vanilla offense. The most common thing was a handoff to Byron Marshall, who had 24 carries in his first collegiate game. The results were mixed for Marshall. He averaged only 2.7 ypc, and seemed to do a bit much dancing around instead of just hitting the hole. To be fair, he was also playing behind a lot of reserve offensive linemen. However, the most telling thing we saw from Marshall was on his touchdown run, which was also Mariota's last play of the game. Appearing to be stopped several yards short of the end zone of a fourth down, Marshall put forth a tremendous second effort to drag multiple Red Wolf defenders just across the line for the score.
The big complaint was the defense giving up 31 points after the 50-3 lead. Sure, they will make Oregon's total stats look bad (the advanced stats will render the minutes meaningless), and perhaps lead to taunts from SEC fans about Oregon's defense. However, this was a lot of first time players and walk-ons, playing really vanilla schemes against Arkansas State's starters. Its really meaningless in every way. Those kids got some playing time under their feet, will get a chance to see their mistakes on film, and have two more games coming up in which they should play just as much as they did tonight to improve and be ready should the team need them later in the season.
All in all, it was a performance that should leave you feeling good, especially about that quarterback position. Mariota will go through this whole week with everybody telling him how great he is. If he's as cool as I think he is, he'll put all that aside, come out next week against another overmatched opponent, and do it again.