Overlooked Mariota will be Ducks' X-factor in critical USC matchup
Early in the second quarter of Oregon's demolition of Arizona State, a game in which the Ducks scored 43 points in fewer than 20 minutes, redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota made his most dazzling play to date. He received the snap, faked a handoff to De'Anthony Thomas and bolted around the right edge, leaving a trail of defenders in his wake. He sprinted 86 yards untouched to the end zone, scoring Oregon's seventh touchdown of 50 yards or longer on the season (the Ducks now have eight).
But the play signified something greater. On a Thursday night in Tempe, Ariz., Mariota delivered a prime time statement: In addition to Thomas and Kenjon Barner, the Ducks now have a third weapon who can torch the defense on any given play.
"He's been efficient and he's kind of just done his job," Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said of Mariota. "And then at times -- with the 80-something yard run or a couple throws -- you kind of get the glimpse of the total package. That's what we're working toward and that's what he's working toward."
With the most anticipated weekend of the 2012 regular season upon us, the majority of quarterbacks in Saturday's showdowns have already been labeled. Alabama's AJ McCarron is the ultra-efficient unlikely Heisman candidate; USC's Matt Barkley is the golden boy looking to salvage his senior season; LSU's Zach Mettenberger is the underwhelming transfer still attempting to prove himself, a task that will only get tougher against the Tide's vaunted defense.
Yet nationally, Mariota has gone largely overlooked. Despite collecting 1,483 passing yards, 378 rushing yards and a 158.2 quarterback rating, the 17th best mark in the FBS, Mariota has been overshadowed by star running backs Barner and Thomas, two of the college game's most electrifying threats. He's also suffered from a lack attention given the Ducks' typical late-night kickoff times.
Come game time, Mariota could rewrite that narrative. While Thomas, Barner, Barkley and wideouts Marqise Lee and Robert Woods are more heralded players, the 6-foot-4 Honolulu native is the matchup's biggest X-factor.
It didn't take long for Mariota to show he could cut it as a starting quarterback. After backing up at Saint Louis (Hawaii) High during his sophomore and junior seasons, he was finally handed the reins to the first-team offense as a senior in the fall of 2010. In a matter of weeks, he forged a name for himself as one of the premier prospects in the entire Aloha State.
During his first start against Roosevelt High, Mariota finished with 215 total yards, four scores and no turnovers. In his second against Wai'anae High, he tossed four touchdowns in a 42-3 rout. By season's end, Mariota had thrown for 2,587 yards and 32 touchdowns and rushed for another 455 yards and seven scores. He led Saint Louis to an 11-1 record and the state Division I title, helping the Crusaders outscore opponents 489-174.
Under the tutelage of Saint Louis coaches and passing gurus Darnell Arceneaux and Vinnie Passas, Mariota transformed from a first-year starter into a champion. Now, he's attempting to make a similarly meteoric ascent with the Ducks.
"For me to win [a title] with some guys that I've been growing up with since I was a little kid, to finally do what we set out to do since we went to that high school, I think that's my greatest achievement," said Mariota. "But I'm looking to gain some more stories this year."
Upon his arrival in Eugene, Mariota already possessed the physical skills needed to excel in Chip Kelly's scheme. He's always boasted elite speed and arm strength, having uncorked a 70-yard throw as a sophomore in Hawaii. He wasn't accustomed to playing at a rapid-fire pace, however, and as such was prone to mental mistakes early in his Oregon tenure.
After an inconsistent performance during fall camp in 2011, Mariota redshirted as the Ducks' third-string quarterback. He wound up sitting out the year while learning the intricacies of the offense.
"You go so fast here that you can't really even think about what you're doing, you just got to do it," said Mariota. "And I think that's what's really helped me to adjust to this tempo and to the style of coach Kelly's offense."
Mariota made strides on the scout team as Oregon cruised to a 12-2 record, but following the Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin, his timetable was drastically accelerated. On Jan. 14, incumbent starter Darron Thomas announced he would enter the NFL draft. Mariota was instantly thrust into a competition for the starting spot with Bryan Bennett, a highly touted sophomore who saw limited playing time last year after Thomas went down with a knee injury.
But despite Bennett's experience, Mariota's upside eventually won out. By the time he won the starting job in August, he showed he could do more than simply feed Oregon's explosive stable of backs -- he brought an entirely new dimension to an already potent attack.
That's been evident in 2012. Mariota leads the Pac-12 in completion percentage (his 68.6 percent mark tops Barkley's 65.3 percent) and maintains an impressive 18-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
"He hasn't played a ton of football," said Helfrich. "He was only a one-year starter in high school and then playing now after a redshirt season. ... But just letting him play fast and free and natural, and yet within the system and not really throttling him back, is kind of the magic balance."
Given that the Ducks have won a series of blowouts, Mariota has yet to be tested in a close, late-game situation. That's allowed him the luxury of maturing while sharing the load with Oregon's more established stars. "We have so many playmakers here that I just gotta get them the ball in the right place," Mariota said.
Still, just like at Saint Louis, Mariota is making an immediate impact. While bumps in the road should arise at some point, he's heading into the USC game with the poise of a veteran, a calm that could pay huge dividends in the Coliseum.
"He's just a great kid," said Helfrich. "Very coachable. Very humble. But at the same time very competitive and wants to be great."
To get a better sense of what Mariota is capable of, pull up
Late in the first quarter, Mariota burst up the middle for a 14-yard touchdown. On the next drive, he faked a handoff to sophomore running back Ayele Ford, juked a defender and dashed 82 yards to paydirt. He followed that up with a touchdown pass to Daryle Hawkins, and he finished the day with 301 yards of total offense in his side's 41-14 win.
The stage was small, but Mariota still made a statement. Come Saturday, he'll look to make another on one of the brightest stages in the sport. The Ducks will look to take the next step toward fulfilling their national title aspirations, while the Trojans will look to make the most of what's been a disappointing season to date. The game, clearly, is loaded with BCS implications.
But if Mariota can outshine Barkley and lead Oregon to another convincing victory, he'll do more than show he's ready for the spotlight. He'll demonstrate that under his lead, the Ducks might be more dangerous than ever. Given the opportunity, this group might have what it takes to hoist the coveted crystal ball trophy.
"You wanna live in those situations when the game's close and you gotta make a play," said Mariota. "That's just the competitor in me. If it comes down to it, I think we'll be prepared."