Oregon had a crisp, impressive beginning in their opener Saturday with Marcus Mariota and the offense clicking for 7 touchdowns in their first 7 possessions to build a 50-3 lead midway through the second quarter.
In the last two and half quarters of the game, however, the Ducks emptied the bench (77 players saw action, including several true freshman) and Arkansas State outscored the hosts 31-7.
Nick Aliotti, speaking to reporters after the game, summed it up best. He said it was great the younger players and reserves got in the game, that they'd earned it with their effort through fall camp, but he would have wanted them to play better. This weekend Mountain West foe Fresno State comes to Autzen. It will be interesting to see if 1) the first unit maintains their focus and execution and 2) the depth, which was supposed to be a strength of the Oregon roster, shows itself in improved results if the second through fourth unit guys again get an opportunity for extended minutes. They must show improvement. The Ducks will need them later on in the season against much tougher competition.
Here are the grades for Saturday, based on the questions DSH identified before the game:
How does Marcus Mariota look?
Mariota was utterly fantastic. He threw with poise and vision. He delivered the ball confidently even in tight windows. He throws with wonderful touch and was supremely accurate.
There was a telling moment after one of his touchdown throws. He just threaded a pass to De'Anthony Thomas for his third touchdown, and the camera caught his reaction, raising his arms calmly in a touchdown signal, hands upright and hardly above his numbers. He wasn't gloating and wasn't showboating; it was more like, "job done." As talented and skilled and intelligent as this young man is, it's the calm, the even-keel, cool breeze way he goes about his business that is most promising. He's a quiet leader. and 18-22 for 200 yards in his first start can only increase the confidence his teammates have in him.
Mariota turned in an even better performance than he did showing such promise in the spring game, and the poised way he handled the post game attention suggests he'll continue to focus on improvement and distribute the ball efficiently. Probably the greatest debut performance by a Duck quarterback ever, although Joey Harrington leading a comeback off the bench as a sophomore against Arizona comes close.
Will the new receiver group be productive and add balance to the offense?
The answer to this question was also an emphatic yes. 14 different Duck receivers caught a pass, 4 for tds, including a pair of 12-yarders to De'Anthony Thomas, a nifty toss by Mariota to Josh Huff running the old Jeff Maehl route in the back of the end zone, and a strike from Bryan Bennett to Rahsaan Vaughn. Though there were a few drops, but the group got open and made plays, and it was especially encouraging to see first down catches on the opening drive by Daryle Hawkins and Keanon Lowe, Lowe shaking loose for 21 clutch yards on 3rd and 19.
The improvement in the passing game could be a difference maker for the Ducks in 2012. It gives them an opportunity to recover from a negative play, like the first down sack in the opening drive last Saturday. It also open holes for the running game and takes pressure off Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas. They won't have to carry the ball 25-30 times a game for the offense to be potent, and the ability to spread it out and around to different players makes it even harder to defend.
DAT still appears to be the go-to receiver, but the Ducks got good signs from many people, including Huff with a pair of catches, Colt Lyerla with some tough running after his two grabs, Lowe with sure hands on four catches, B.J. Kelley with a tough catch on a 22-yard sideline pattern, hanging on despite getting popped hard just as the ball got there. Freshman Bralon Addison showed poise in his first game, catching three balls for positive gains. Eric Dungy continues to snare everything that's thrown to him. True freshman Dwayne Stanford, smooth and athletic at 6-5, 210, got into the game and nabbed two balls for 24 yards.
The unit blocked well, something position coach Scott Frost demands. Kelley did have a ball go through his hands for an interception, but he showed an explosive burst off the line with his two grabs for 39 yards, and he'll continue to improve and get more comfortable.
The 308 yards in the passing game was more than the Ducks had in any game last season except Nevada, when Darren Thomas and Bryan Bennett combined for 331. Individually, Thomas surpassed the 300 mark only twice in his Duck career, against UCLA (308) and Auburn (363), both in 2010.
A very promising beginning, but the receivers must eliminate the drops and make some big plays to to reach an A grade. Encouraging to see the depth and productivity, which could shape up to a tremendous improvement over last year.
Have the young cornerbacks grown from year one to year two?
At 50-3, it certainly looked like the Oregon defense was as deep and ferocious as advertised going into a new season. But the rest of the way the reserves were outscored 34-7, Arkansas State quarterback and his receivers struck for 304 yards through the air and three touchdowns. Outside receivers Josh Jarboe, Julian Jones and Carlos McCants beat the Ducks in one-on-one coverage, and every team in the PAC-12 has at least a couple of receivers as good or better as these three. It was disturbing to see the Red Wolves gain so much ground and find so many holes in the secondary. Even allowing for the reserves playing, many seeing their first action, Aliotti and his staff have to expect better execution and effort. Oregon should be turning in some shutdown performances in these early games.
The position group will get another telling test this week. Fresno State's Derek Carr was 20-25 for 298 yards last week operating out of the Bulldogs spread offense versus Weber State, and he threw for 3544 yards and 2 touchdowns last season, earning all-conference honors.
Oregon can't win a fourth conference championship, or beat USC, without an improved pass defense. Improvement wasn't evident in week one, at least not after the Ducks jumped out to their big lead. Although, granted, the Ducks emptied the bench and played the most vanilla scheme possible. One mildly alarming stat: Arkansas State threw 44 times, much of those in obvious pass-first situations, and the Ducks didn't have a sack.
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