EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — New Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn wants the Red Wolves to play fast. They're about to get quite a lesson.
Malzahn makes his debut as Arkansas State's head coach on Saturday night against the No. 5 Oregon Ducks, whose speed has become the hallmark of their high-scoring, yard-reaping offense.
The Ducks averaged more than 46 points and 522 yards of total offense per game last season. They had 88 plays from scrimmage that went for 20 yards or more. Their offense averaged a point every 32.6 seconds of possession.
All of which could be pretty daunting for the Red Wolves. Or not.
"A lot of people are probably doubting us and saying we're going to get killed and whatnot, but that's just fuel to our fire," Red Wolves senior quarterback Ryan Aplin said. "We're going to go out there and give them hell and do what we do best, up-tempo, and hopefully put a shock to them."
Over the past two seasons, the Ducks have grown accustomed to the fact that many of their opponents would like nothing better than to knock them off track. But Oregon looks a bit different this season.
Gone is quarterback Darron Thomas, who surprisingly left school early to declare for the NFL draft. He passed for 2,761 yards and a school-record 33 touchdowns last season when the Ducks went 12-2 and defeated Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
In his place this season is redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota, who has never played in a live game. On Saturday, he will become the first freshman to start in an opener for Oregon since Danny O'Neil in 1991.
Mariota was on the practice squad last season before emerging in Oregon's spring game, where he completed 18 of 26 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 99 yards and two scores — including an 82-yard scoring run — to lead his team to a 41-14 victory.
He won the job over sophomore Bryan Bennett, who started last season in Oregon's victory at Colorado while Thomas nursed a knee injury.
"Last year, my first time suiting up was for the LSU game, so I know the feeling," said sophomore center Hroniss Grasu. "I'm sure he's going to be nervous, but he's prepared so well, that I know right off the bat he's going to come in and run with it."
Also gone is LaMichael James, who rushed for a school-record 1,805 yards as a junior last season despite missing two games with a dislocated right elbow. He led the nation with an average of 150.4 yards rushing per game.
He also declared early for the draft and was a second-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers.
James' backup for two seasons, senior Kenjon Barner, gets his shot at the spotlight this season after rushing for 939 yards and 11 touchdowns, and pulling down three more scores last season.
Barner is backed up by De'Anthony Thomas, but the depth chart is deceiving because the quick sophomore also plays at receiver and returns kicks. He set an Oregon freshman record last season with 18 touchdowns, rushing for seven, nine on receptions and two on kickoff returns
Defensively, Oregon returned key playmakers in four-year starter John Boyett, defensive end Dion Jordan and linebacker Kiko Alonso. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti called this season's D the best the Ducks have had for some time.
Aliotti was wary of the Red Wolves. Malzahn is familiar to Oregon because he was offensive coordinator at Auburn for the past three years. The Tigers defeated Oregon in the BCS championship game two seasons ago.
"We're watching Auburn for scheme, and we're watching Arkansas State for personnel," he said. "It's always tougher preparing for a game with a new staff, just because of the unknowns."
Arkansas State and Oregon have never played each other. Indeed, the Red Wolves have never faced a Pac-12 foe.
Arkansas State went 10-3 last season and was undefeated in the Sun Belt Conference. Coach Hugh Freeze took the job as the Mississippi head coach, making way for Malzahn to return to his home state.
Malzahn has brought along his hurry-up no-huddle offense. Aplin even joked that the team has to grab a drink of water fast.
"I think I speak for the team when I say last year was fast, but this is extremely fast," Aplin said. "Not only in games, but for practice also."
Aplin threw for 3,588 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, and also rushed for 588 yards and 10 touchdowns. He needs six TDs to become Arkansas State's career leader. He also needs 154 yards of total offense for the school record.
But it's the Red Wolves' defense that needs to worry, at least when it comes to the Ducks. The Red Wolves didn't fare poorly last season, holding six opponents to under 20 points. They allowed under 350 yards in total offense five times last season, and kept opponents to an average of 4.7 yards per play.
Malzahn has already hit some snags before his first game as the Red Wolves' head coach. He brought in transfer Michael Dyer from Auburn but had to dismiss him in July after he was pulled over for speeding and a gun and marijuana were found in the car.
Dyer rushed for 143 yards for the Tigers in the national championship game against the Ducks.
Additionally, Malzahn dismissed wide receiver Earl Lucas and suspended WR Tres Houston for violating team rules.