SEATTLE -- Oregon ranked among the top six nationally in rushing offense in each of former coach Chip Kelly's four seasons at the helm in Eugene. A Ducks tailback gained at least 1,546 rushing yards every year en route to four straight BCS bowls. So if a defense were to hold Oregon's running backs to just 4.8 yards per attempt, as No. 16 Washington did on Saturday, it'd make sense to think that team had a pretty good chance of beating the Ducks.
Not in 2013.
No. 2 Oregon (6-0) remains on the short list of the best teams in the country because it may well have the best player in the country. Quarterback Marcus Mariota put on a clinic in the Ducks' 45-24 victory on Saturday, completing 24-of-31 passes for 366 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and running for another 88 yards and a score. But the numbers don't describe the poise Oregon's third-year sophomore showed time and again against a Washington defense that came in ranked third nationally against the pass, and in a game the Ducks led by just seven points entering the fourth quarter.
In Oregon's first five games, all blowouts, Mariota didn't even play in the fourth. This time, he led two critical touchdown drives to put the game away.
"I've never seen anything rattle him," Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said of his quarterback. "Every week people try to point out something wrong with him. This week, it was that he hadn't played in the fourth quarter. We'll see what it is next week."
The story has been told many times by now, but that doesn't make it less incredible. At one point during the class of 2011 recruiting cycle, Oregon had commitments from both Mariota and Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel. Now, at the 2013 season's midway point, Mariota has emerged as Manziel's most formidable Heisman challenger.
Putting up 454 total yards on Washington won't be viewed in nearly the same vein nationally as Manziel's 562-yard opus against No. 1 Alabama, but it's merely the latest in a line of near-flawless performances for Mariota. For the season, he now has 17 passing touchdowns, eight rushing touchdowns ... and no interceptions.
"I don't have a Heisman vote but I'd be hard-pressed to say we'll see a better quarterback this year," said Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. "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."
Mariota was hardly a secret to Heisman voters or draftniks coming off his breakout 2012 debut season, but it still may be hard for some to grasp the extent of his talent. After all, recent Oregon quarterbacks Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas led prolific offenses and then never sniffed the NFL. The Ducks were more synonymous with star runners like LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.
But Mariota is a different specimen. He's 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds with a cannon arm, uncanny accuracy and breakaway speed. All were on display as he wreaked havoc on the Huskies' previously stout defense.
On an early second-quarter touchdown drive that gave the Ducks a 14-7 lead, Mariota connected with receiver Bralon Addison for a 38-yard gain, scrambled for an 11-yard run, hit Daryle Hawkins for a 15-yard gain and then -- on third-and-goal from the four-yard line -- scrambled right for several beats to buy himself time before firing a dart to Addison in the end zone. His 20-yard pass to Keanon Lowe set up the touchdown that put Oregon up 21-7 before the half.
But Washington (4-2) is not Virginia or Tennessee. It did not go away. Star running back Bishop Sankey's 60-yard touchdown run four plays into the third quarter cut the deficit to 21-14. Of course, that made what Mariota did next arguably the most important play of the game.
On second-and-7 from his own 35, he saw receiver Josh Huff in tight one-on-one coverage. Mariota launched a ball 40 yards downfield, dropping it just over the defender and to Huff in stride for a 65-yard catch-and-run.
"You've got to make a perfect throw," Frost said of the play. "The guy was right on [Huff] and he dropped it right in the bucket."
That bomb put Oregon up 28-14, and while the Huskies would briefly get back within one score (on a 25-yard touchdown from Sankey, who finished with a hard-earned 167 rushing yards on 28 carries), it never felt like the Ducks weren't in control. That, in large part, was because Washington clearly had no answer for Mariota.
"He threw the ball extremely well and when we covered him, he ran," said Sarkisian. "We tried to catch him. We tried to spot him, we tried to blitz him, we tried to contain him, but he played a tremendous game."
Fans would never know from watching Mariota on Saturday that his supporting cast has been in flux in recent weeks. Tight end Colt Lyerla, an important weapon for the Ducks last season and a projected high-round NFL draft pick, missed one game, was suspended for another and last week left the team. Multi-purpose star De'Anthony Thomas missed his third straight game with a sprained ankle. Huff even missed much of the first half on Saturday with a leg injury that caused him to be carried off the field.
Mariota still had plenty of help, though, especially from his defense. A unit that came into the season with question marks after losing stalwarts Dion Jordan, Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso to the pros has thus-far exceeded expectations. Save for those two long Sankey touchdowns, it was solid again on Saturday. The secondary, in particular, blanketed Washington's receivers and limited quarterback Keith Price to just 182 passing yards.
Oregon's first-year head coach Mark Helfrich -- who spent segments of his postseason press gathering making jokes about various sportswriters in attendance -- refused to play along when asked whether his team "made a statement." In true "Win the Day" fashion, he said the Ducks "just try to beat ourselves every day."
Yet whether Helfrich is willing to admit it or not, Mariota made quite the statement on Saturday: about his Heisman hopes, about his draft potential and about his team's national title aspirations. Not bad for a guy who doesn't turn 20 for another three weeks.
"Not many 19-year-olds can even think about some of the things he does," said Frost. "Any time I call plays for him, I think that game is the most impressive [yet]."
In this year's notably deep Pac-12, Mariota will have several more games against ranked foes before season's end. That means he'll have plenty more opportunities to deliver his most impressive performance to date.