Can Marcus Mariota and Oregon be stopped?
SEATTLE – There have been a lot of great players and a lot of great teams during Oregon's Phil Knight-funded, Swoosh to the Top Era.
But no Oregon player has been better than Marcus Mariota. And no Oregon team has been better than the 2013 Ducks.
This could be their year. The first Heisman Trophy in school history for the sophomore quarterback. And the first national title in school history for the team. There is a ton of football still to be played, but both those dreams seem attainable right now.
The Ducks' biggest test of the season to date turned into another blow-by victory. The 45-24 triumph over Washington soured the biggest Seattle Saturday in years, turning this hotly anticipated game into a 10th consecutive Duck rout of the Huskies. The Oregon contingent of 71,833 at Husky Stadium sent the home fans to the exits early with chants of "Ten more years!" ringing in their ears.
It could be 10 years or longer before Washington has to deal with a better Oregon quarterback than Mariota. Since this wasn't a blowout, the redshirt sophomore finally got to play a full game for the first time this season – and his numbers were suitably superb.
Mariota threw for 366 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for 88 yards and another touchdown. He has the arm for deep throws, the touch for tight throws and the legs to turn any stressful pocket situation into a breakaway gain. At 6-foot-4, the long-striding Hawaiian is the closest thing to Colin Kaepernick in college right now.
"I don't have a Heisman vote but I'd be hard-pressed to say we'll see a better quarterback this year," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "That guy is special. I don't know when he is planning on going to the NFL, but when he does, I think he'll be a top-five draft pick. He's a hell of a player."
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With all that Mariota did well Saturday, this might be the most impressive thing: He had 44 snaps either running or throwing and did not turn the ball over, against a defense that came in with eight takeaways in five games.
But that's nothing new. Mariota turns the ball over as often as Knight wears Adidas. He's had 206 runs or throws in a high-speed offense without giving the ball to the other team.
"The coaches keep on us every day in practice to finish every single play with the ball," Mariota said.
The kid is coachable. Just 19, he plays with a poise and maturity many of his college football elders cannot approximate.
"We've seen him since he got to campus as a 17-year-old and nothing seems to rattle him," Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "It's hard not to be impressed with the maturity for his age and his composure. A lot of 19-year-olds couldn't even think about doing some of the things he does."
The main thing Mariota did after the game was deflect praise and talk about his teammates. But truth be told, Oregon was losing playmakers at an alarming rate: receiver Josh Huff missed much of the first half with a foot injury; electrifying running back De'Anthony Thomas didn't play a down with a sprained ankle; and touted tight end Colt Lyerla quit the team earlier this week.
So Mariota had a lot resting on his shoulder pads against Washington, and he came through brilliantly. But he scrupulously avoided touting any of his own exploits, so we'll have to do it for him.
[Related: Stanford's title hopes take huge blow at Utah]
With the game tied at seven in the second quarter, Mariota began an Oregon drive with a 38-yard strike to Bralon Addison on a deep crossing route. Then he hit a well-covered Daryle Hawkins on the numbers for 15 yards. And on third-and-goal from the 4, Mariota rolled out, bought some time and threw a pinpoint pass to Addison against the sideline for the touchdown.
Next drive, he was 3-for-3 for 44 yards before handing off to Byron Marshall for a 15-yard scoring run. That sent Oregon to the locker room with a 21-7 halftime lead.
After Washington scored to open the second half and make it 21-14, Mariota showcased his ability to go deep. He aired out a gorgeous bomb to a revived Huff for a 65-yard touchdown.
Mariota described Huff as wide open. Frost disagreed.
"He had to make a perfect throw," Frost said. "The guy was right on him and he had to drop it in the bucket."
In the put-away drive that spanned the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth, Mariota had a 35-yard run and a 30-yard completion to create a first-and-goal situation. Then he finished the drive with a five-yard touchdown run around the left end.
"Just awesome," was head coach Mark Helfrich's assessment of his quarterback. "Very smart, very productive."
It was a bloody weekend for national title contenders and Heisman hopefuls. Oklahoma, Georgia and Stanford all were upset. Quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville and Aaron Murray of Georgia struggled enough to take a hit in the Heisman race.
But no such trouble for Oregon and Mariota – even in a locale where the home team has upset three Top 10 opponents in the last four years. The Ducks never trailed, and Washington never had a second-half possession with a chance to tie or take the lead.
"They're a good football team," Sarkisian said. "Their ranking is deservedly so. … I thought we showed a lot of resolve during the third quarter in battling back into the ballgame. We just unfortunately had a hard time containing Marcus Mariota. He threw the ball extremely well and when we covered them, he ran. We tried to catch him, we tried to spot him, we tried to blitz him and we tried to contain him, but he played a tremendous game."
Another in a series of tremendous games. After coming close several times during this golden era of Oregon football, this could be the Year of the Duck – come Heisman time in December, and come BCS title game time in January.