Oregon Football: 7 Keys to Winning the Arkansas State Game
You ready? Ready to defend as Rose Bowl champions? Ready for the four-peat as Pac-12 Conference champions?
It all starts this weekend when the Arkansas State Red Wolves visit intimidating Autzen Stadium. I doubt if new Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn, formerly offensive coordinator at Auburn, would have picked this particular team and this particular stadium against which to launch his head-coaching debut.
But the Red Wolves will head west, and Malzahn will see what he's got to work with this year. No one on the planet expects Ark State to win this game, but the Ducks still have to play it. Last time I checked, they don't put a "W" up in your column for showing up.
What must Oregon do on Saturday to ensure that "W"? Read on, please.
Squish Them Like a Bug Early
When a team is flying across the country to play an out-of-conference opponent from one of the country's top conferences in a legendary college football stadium, the very last thing you want to do if you're the Ducks is to let the Red Wolves believe, even for a minute, that they have a chance to win.
This will be the first time Arkansas State has played in the state of Oregon. It's also their first-ever meeting against a Pac-12 school.
A-State has a lot of young, new and inexperienced players. Those, traditionally, are the kind of kids who will fold if they run into early resistance. The first real hit or big goof on their part will wipe out their coach's impassioned pregame speech in a heartbeat.
Hit them early, and hit them hard.
Score the first series you get your hands on the ball.
Run the kickoff back.
Even win the coin toss if you can. Show 'em who's boss.
Contain Ryan Aplin
Arkansas State's redshirt senior quarterback, Ryan Aplin, was the Sun Belt Conference player of the year last season, and he led his team to the conference championship and an invitation to the GoDaddy.com bowl.
In a Q&A with Matt Roberson, who covers Arkansas State for the Jonesboro (Arkansas) Sun newspaper, on OregonLive.com, Roberson said that Aplin isn't an imposing guy, but he has a nice arm, is very accurate and is a smart decision-maker on the fly. The Red Wolves' roster lists Aplin as 6'1", 205 lbs.
Arkansas State runs a spread offense similar to Oregon's, and they prefer to run the ball. Controlling the line of scrimmage and pressuring Aplin could seriously disrupt their offense.
Expect Aplin to make some plays, however. A-State believes that Aplin is a legitimate All-American and perhaps Heisman candidate. No joke. Their sports information department is maintaining a Facebook page called "Ryan Aplin All-America and Heisman Campaign," and fans and media will be able to follow the QB's 2012 season on the regularly updated page.
Shut down Aplin, Ducks, and you make life easy on yourself.
Don't Let Them Run the Ball
The Red Wolves have three running backs capable of moving the ball, and no, Michael Dyer, isn't one of them.
Dyer left Auburn to follow Malzahn to A-State but was dismissed from the team early in fall camp. He would have had to sit for a year anyway, so his departure probably won't impact the current RBs.
Look for my favorite new name for a college running back, Sirgregory Thornton. I'm expecting him to be a cross between Billy Bob Thornton and Sir Charles Barkley. Thornton played in 10 games as a freshman and averaged a team-high 6.8 yards per rush.
Also be on the lookout for David Oku. Oku transferred from Tennessee, where, according to his bio, as a true freshman he set school records for both kickoff returns (33) and kickoff return yards (863) in a single season. He averaged 26.2 yards per return to rank second among SEC freshmen and fourth among major college freshmen. Oku was the nation's No. 1 rated all-purpose back in Rivals.com's 2009 class.
The third-listed RB is Frankie Jackson. The redshirt sophomore from Baton Rouge returns as A-State's leading rusher from last season.
It would appear that these three RBs all have a slightly different role in the Red Wolves offense, giving them some versatility.
A Calm, Focused Marcus Mariota
No matter how prepared one is in practice, Mr. Mariota, the fact remains that you have not played a down in a major college football game.
You've just been handed the keys to the fastest car made and will be expected to drive it calmly and safely in the middle of a frenzied, practically orgasmic Autzen Stadium.
You must remain calm and focused on the job at hand. You must try to not do too much in your first appearance on the big stage. Oregon fans know you can play, or you wouldn't have earned the job over fierce competition. You don't have to prove it to us.
At least, not in the first game.
De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner
Note to Marcus Mariota: Hand the pigskin to De'Anthony Thomas or Kenjon Barner, and then get out of the way.
Don't Fall Asleep in the Second Half
With all due respect, Arkansas State simply does not have the depth to keep up with the Ducks, especially in the second half.
If fans come back into the stadium when the halftime horn sounds, and the players can manage to stay awake and somewhat intense at the start of the second half, Oregon should put away A-State quickly.
But if you, Duck fans (yes, I'm talking to you), stay in the parking lot drinking beer during the second half, and the stands resemble a high school game on Friday night, can you expect your team to play with full intensity?
These supposedly cakewalk preseason games only get dicey when teams and their fans don't take their opponents seriously. Laugh off Tennessee Tech in Week 3 if you must, but do not ignore Arkansas State.
For reference, see Oregon State versus Sacramento State, 2011.
Use This Game as a Springboard
Greatness is achieved in small steps.
One of the keys to beating Arkansas State is to know where you want to go, Oregon, and what it takes to get there. Coaches, players and fans all know where they want the Ducks to go this season.
To the players, keeping that goal in mind as they take the field against the Red Wolves is the single biggest key to Oregon winning this game.
Keep your eye on your goal, team, and you will take the first big step toward reaching it.
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