EUGENE, Ore. -- Ever the humble superstar, Marcus Mariota wouldn’t take the bait when asked if the No. 3 Ducks’ 46-27 comeback win over No. 7 Michigan State would make some sort of statement to the college football world.
“We’re 2-0,” said Mariota, minutes after passing for 318 yards with three touchdowns, and rushing for an additional 42 yards. “It doesn’t change our mentality at all. We wanted to build upon this win for the rest of the year, but we didn’t put any more emphasis into this game than any other we’ve played.”
How vanilla. Yes, the Ducks are undefeated. They’re also a legitimate contender for one of four coveted spots in the inaugural College Football Playoff come December. Mariota, one of the smartest players on the Oregon’s roster, knows this. He is just too modest to admit it.
Labeled the marquee nonconference game of 2014, Michigan State fumbled around the first quarter, cruised to a 24-18 halftime lead and then promptly fell victim to Mariota and the aptly named “blur” offense. The Ducks didn’t go at the breakneck pace that fans are accustomed to, but they got the tempo they wanted in the second half and reeled off 28 unanswered points. The biggest nonconference game ever played at Autzen Stadium, this will go down as one of the biggest wins in school history. And this time, the win came over a bruising, physical opponent.
Boy, did Oregon need it.
For months -- years, really, if you go back to Oregon’s 2011 BCS title game loss to Auburn -- the Ducks heard talk about how they weren’t physical enough to win on the big stage, how they couldn’t handle rough and tough teams. Michigan State and its stifling defense are about as physical as it gets (for confirmation, ask Stanford). The defending Rose Bowl champs, the Spartans didn’t allow more than 28 points, or a 60-yard pass, in any single game last season. On Saturday night, Mariota threw two: A 64-yard strike to Darren Carrington (leading to the Ducks’ 11-0 lead early in the second quarter) and a 70-yard bomb to Devon Allen (propelling them to an 18-7 lead).
And that’s before the offense really got going. At halftime, Oregon had stumbled to a grand total of 13 rushing yards on 14 carries. Early in the third quarter, the Ducks had combined for four yards on their last five possessions.
“That,” deadpanned Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, “was not part of the game plan.”
Coming into the season, some doubted Helfrich’s ability to lead Oregon in the wake of Chip Kelly’s departure to the NFL. Though the Ducks went 11-2 last year, whispers surrounded Eugene that Oregon would struggle to remain in college football’s upper echelon. They whispered that Helfrich didn’t know how to motivate his team. And those whispers became shouts after last year’s disastrous 42-16 shellacking at the hands of unranked Arizona.
UCLA, featuring its own Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Brett Hundley, became the trendy pick out of the Pac-12. Now, following the Bruins’ underwhelming victories over Virginia and Memphis, that pick looks foolish. With a win like this, the Ducks may finally be the class of the conference. A Nov. 1 date with Stanford will likely confirm or squash that theory.
But how could anyone ever doubt a team led by Mariota, anyway?
“I should have to pay to watch that guy,” said Helfrich, and ticket holders surely agree that they got their money’s worth.
After looking (mostly) human in the first half, Mariota took over the third quarter. Trailing 27-18 and facing third-and-10 from the Oregon 41-yard line, Mariota escaped a sack, stumbled away and managed to flip the ball to freshman running back Royce Freeman, who took off for a first down. Six plays later, Mariota hit speedster Devon Allen with a 24-yard touchdown pass to cut Michigan State’s lead to 27-25. On the Ducks’ next series, a familiar sight: third-and-nine from the Oregon 42, and Mariota, tucking, running and racing down the Michigan State sideline, giving the Spartans an up-close look at how talented he is.
“He’s tough, he leads and he creates,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “That’s the difference in the football game. He created, and we let him get out of it numerous times.
Said Helfrich, when asked to explain how Mariota is so good: “Genetics.”
Said Mariota, when asked to explain how he knows what to do: “Instincts."
Fans and teammates are used to Mariota’s heroics. “Believe it or not, he does that every single day in practice,” receiver Keanon Lowe said. “It’s easy to have confidence … as an offense and as a team when you have a quarterback like that.”
Oregon has never had a quarterback this good. Still, there were moments when he, and the Oregon offense, looked disjointed. It’s only Week 2, though. Can you imagine how good the Ducks could be in Week 10, when the Cardinal come to town? Or in Week 15, when the Pac-12 championship takes place in Santa Clara?
All this, and we still haven’t mentioned Oregon’s defense. No one is yet convinced the Ducks can consistently stop the run. But on a fourth-and-two play at the Oregon 24, with Michigan State threatening to make it a game again, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner stuffed star running back Jeremy Langford in the backfield. In turn, they completely deflated the Spartans.
It also helps to have a future first-round draft pick playing cornerback, where acrobatic interceptions are the norm. For the record, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu said his eye-popping pick in the fourth quarter wasn’t even particularly difficult.
Helfrich side-stepped the opportunity to stump publicly for the Pac-12, saying he didn’t believe this game was any sort of statement. Fans know better.
And so does his quarterback, even if he won’t say so out loud.