The match-up:Defending Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State open its 2012 campaign at No. 5 Oregon in Eugene on Saturday at 9:30 p.m (CT). A-State is coming off a 10-3 season, a perfect 8-0 record in the Sun Belt Conference and an appearance in the 2012 GoDaddy.com Bowl. Defending PAC-12 champion Oregon is coming off a 12-2 season that included losses to LSU and USC and a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. It is the first meeting between the two schools and the first time A-State has played in the state of Oregon. Oregon is favored in the game by as much as 36 points and at least one national sports writer (Stewart Mandell) has the Ducks projected to play LSU in the national championship game.
At Stake: All eyes will be on first-year Arkansas State head coach Gus Malzahn as he takes over from the highly successful Hugh Freeze, now the head coach at Ole Miss. Freeze didn't get much publicity early last season after road losses to Illinois and Virginia Tech, but Freeze's ability to play both those teams respectably - at least avoiding blowout losses - may have set the stage for his undefeated conference run. Arkansas State fans should be looking for the same thing from not only Malzahn, but also from first year defensive coordinator, John Thompson. A respectable showing at Oregon and two weeks later in Lincoln, Nebraska may be signs that Malzahn can lead A-State to repeat as Sun Belt Conference champions. Still, A-State has a lot of rebuilding to do on both sides of the ball and especially on defense, where only four starters return.
Keys to the Game: 1)Defense. Oregon is as widely known for its juggernaut offenses as it is for its variety of unique uniforms. The Red Wolves must slow the Oregon offense and keep the defense from staying on the field all night. 2) Avoid the quick scoring strikes. Oregon can score early and often, not only on offense, but also on defense and special teams. Quick scores could quickly demoralize A-State and allow the game to get out of hand. 3) Oregon was No. 66 among the 120 FBS teams last year in total defense and gave up almost 400 yards a game. A-State needs to put points on the board and more importantly, keep the Oregon offense off the field by having multiple long, sustained drives.
Arkansas State rushing versus the Oregon ground defense: While both Freeze and Malzahn have the reputation of being pass happy, A-State, as well as Auburn teams when Malzahn was the coordinator, fielded teams capable of running the football. Last year, A-State was ranked No. 64 out of the 120 FBS teams, averaging almost 155 yards a game on the ground. The Red Wolves will face an Oregon team that was ranked No. 54 in rushing defense and gave up about 145 yards a game. Quarterback Ryan Aplin rushed for almost 600 yards last year, but he will require help which could come from running back Frankie Jackson, who rushed for 355 yards and accounted for six touchdowns last year. Oregon will look to stop the Red Wolves with defensive end Dion Jordan (42 tackles and 7.5 sacks), linebacker Michael Clay (102 tackles), and defensive tackle Taylor Hart (44 tackles and 2.5 sacks).
Arkansas State passing versus the Oregon secondary: Arkansas State returns the Sun Belt player of the year in Aplin and with Malzahn, he'll be in a similar offense as last year when he passed for 3700 yards. The experienced senior gives Arkansas State the best chance at having success, but will need protection and some support from the running game to keep the Duck defense from keying on him all night. Arkansas State was ranked No. 16 in passing last year with around 290 yards a game. Aplin will face a Duck secondary that was ranked No. 88 in pass defense, giving up almost 250 yards a game. With returning receivers Josh Jarboe (54 receptions) and Taylor Stockemer (48 catches and seven touchdowns), there's no reason to believe that A-State can't move the ball through the air, especially if it can get have some degree of success in the running game and the offensive line affords decent protection. Aplin will have to be on the lookout for Duck safety John Boyett (108 tackles) and cornerback Terrance Mitchell (45 tackles with two picks).
Advantage: Arkansas State
Oregon rushing versus the Arkansas State ground defense: The ASU defense allowed just three yards per rush and 103 rushing yards per game, which ranked tied for the third lowest and second lowest averages, respectively, in Sun Belt history. Unfortunately, the Red Wolves are facing a team that thrives on offense and will present even greater challenges than the team saw last year on the road at Illinois and Virginia Tech. Duck running back Kenjon Barner had 939 rushing yards with 11 touchdowns and added 17 receptions. Teammate DeAnthony Thomas had another 595 rushing yards and added 46 receptions. Oregon was No. 5 nationally in rushing offense with almost 300 yards a game and will pose a major challenge to a Red Wolves defense that is in the rebuilding mode - and with a new coordinator in Thompson. Last year, A-State was No. 13 nationally in rush defense and gave up 103 yards a game. There is likely no way that Arkansas State can stop Oregon's rushing attack, but it needs to avoid the big plays, quick scores and keep the Ducks under last year's average of 300 yards a game.
Oregon passing versus the Arkansas State secondary:While Oregon thrived on the ground last year, the Ducks still field a decent passing attack. They were ranked No. 68 in passing offense, throwing for almost 225 yards a game. Meanwhile, Arkansas State was No. 69 in pass defense, giving up just over 225 yards a game. In addition to defending the running backs that the Ducks like to throw to, A-State needs to keep an eye on wide receiver Josh Huff, who notched 31 receptions last year. The Red Wolves will rely on defensive back Don Jones (54 tackles) and linebacker Nathan Herrold on defense as well as defensive tackle Ryan Carrethers (29 tackles).
Special Teams: Arkansas State was No. 6 in defending punt returns last year, Oregon No. 61. Arkansas State was No. 4 in defending kick off returns, Oregon No. 25. Oregon was No. 11 in kick returns (almost 25 yards per return), Arkansas State No. 78 (20 yards per return). Oregon was No. 1 in net punting, Arkansas State, No. 61. Oregon likely offers more play makers and a better chance for big plays on special teams.
Weather forecast:The forecast for Eugene, Oregon on Saturday calls sunny conditions, a high of 78 degrees, a low of 49 degrees, no chance of rain and winds at 11 miles per hour.
Broadcast information: The game will be nationally televised by ESPN at 9:30 p.m. (CT). Every A-State game can be heard live on 107.9 FM?in the Jonesboro area and the live radio broadcast can be accessed through the Arkansas State athletic web site (AStateRedWolves.com).
Prediction: Oregon 51 - Red Wolves 35