EUGENE — With fifth-ranked Oregon heavily favored in its nonconference schedule, Ducks coach Chip Kelly must strike a balance between playing his starters and giving his backups valuable live-game experience.
In the opener against Arkansas State, most of the Ducks' first team was watching from the sidelines by halftime after Oregon built a 50-10 lead. The reserves showed they could use some work when the Red Wolves found some soft spots to close the final margin to 57-34 on Saturday night.
"It's that fine line of making sure we're getting better and starting to grow," Kelly said. "And you don't want to get guys hurt."
Oregon hosts Fresno State on Saturday and Tennessee Tech on Sept. 15 before kicking off the Pac-12 schedule against Arizona at Autzen Stadium on Sept. 22. The Ducks don't play their first game on the road until Sept. 29 at Washington State.
Redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota worked less than a half against Arkansas State, but threw for 200 yards and three touchdowns. It was his college debut after playing on the practice squad last season.
Versatile sophomore De'Anthony Thomas had 125 all-purpose yards, catching two touchdowns and rushing for one. Senior Kenjon Barner, taking over this season for departed running back LaMichael James, ran for 66 yards and two scores.
Bryan Bennett, who appeared to be on track to be the Ducks' starting quarterback after backing up Darron Thomas last season, lost the job to Mariota in camp. Against the Red Wolves he relieved Mariota, completing 10 of 17 passes for 108 yards and touchdown and an interception.
Arkansas State outscored the Ducks 24-7 in the second half. And Red Wolves senior quarterback Ryan Aplin finished with 304 yards passing and three touchdowns against the Ducks.
Barner said he didn't hold the Ducks' reserves at fault. Rather, the whole team needs to be more consistent, he said.
"Depth has always been a question from the media's standpoint about us. But we always laugh at that because we know our depth, we know what we have and we see it during practice. Depth is not an issue for us."
Certainly, if there were any questions about Mariota's ability to lead the Ducks, they were dispelled.
The young quarterback from Hawaii completed 18 of 22 passes and was intercepted once. He led the Ducks to touchdowns on their first seven drives before he left with 7:06 left before halftime.
"He's just a great player," De'Anthony Thomas said. "He's a smart quarterback and he makes good decisions."
Mariota was the first freshman to start at quarterback for Oregon since Danny O'Neil in 1991.
Darron Thomas passed for 2,761 yards and a school-record 33 touchdowns last season when the Ducks went 10-2 and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. He surprisingly left Oregon with a year of eligibility remaining to declare himself eligible for the NFL draft and wound up undrafted.
Bennett was Thomas' backup last season, completing 25 of 46 passes for 369 yards and six touchdowns, including a start in a victory over Colorado when Thomas was out with a sprained knee.
Mariota emerged in the spring game, throwing for 202 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 99 yards and two scores — including an 82-yard scoring run.
Because Oregon closes practices, it was difficult to judge whether the spring game was a fluke. On Saturday Mariota proved it wasn't.
"That kid looked pretty good didn't he?" asked senior offensive lineman Carson York asked with a smile. "He was drilling them tonight. I remember seeing Darron's (Thomas) first starts and how happy and excited he was after plays. Marcus was having the time of his life out there tonight and jumping around. He was very excited."