Behind Mariota, Ducks reach new offensive heights in win at USC
LOS ANGELES -- Former Oregon star LaMichael James played for a trio of teams that regularly notched 50-plus points and 500-plus yards. On Saturday, the San Francisco 49ers rookie watched his former team's record-shattering 62-51 win over No. 18 USC from the Coliseum sideline and afterward offered the following assessment: "This is the best offense I've ever seen in my life."
On a night when neither defense could do much to slow the opposition's star-studded offense, Ducks coach Chip Kelly said his team's primary goal was "to hold serve." No. 2 Oregon did that by scoring touchdowns on nine of its 12 possessions and not punting until 3:35 remained and the outcome was decided. By night's end, Oregon had become the first opponent in USC's 124-year football history to score 60 points; the Ducks also shattered their own school record with 730 total yards.
"It's mind-boggling," said a defeated Monte Kiffin, the Trojans' defensive coordinator. "I've never heard of that many yards."
Kelly's Oregon offenses have always been explosive, but the 2012 Ducks, now 9-0, are redefining the concept. Some may discount Oregon's performance Saturday, citing the 588 yards USC (6-3) gave up to Arizona in a 39-36 loss a week prior. But the Trojans are by far the most talented defensive team Oregon has faced this season, and the Ducks still managed to put up the most impressive four-quarter offensive performance of Kelly's tenure.
"It shows how good of an offense we can be if everything's rolling," said quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Ducks' redshirt freshman signal-caller and the biggest reason the offense is rolling.
The Coliseum field was littered Saturday with some of the sport's most talented offensive players, who delivered some of their finest performances. Oregon running back Kenjon Barner, the guy who spent the past three years serving as James' overlooked sidekick, ran for a school-record 321 yards and five touchdowns. Explosive USC receiver Marqise Lee had 12 catches for 157 yards and, a week after breaking the Pac-12 record for receiving yards (345), set another one for kickoff return yardage (251). Lee's quarterback, Matt Barkley, racked up another 484 yards and five touchdowns to become the Pac-12's all-time total offense leader.
But Barkley, a four-year starter, didn't match the poised and efficient performance his younger counterpart delivered. While Barkley threw a pair of interceptions for the second consecutive week and routinely overthrew his receivers (he finished 35-of-54), Mariota had more passing touchdowns (four) than incompletions in a 20-of-23, 304-yard masterpiece. He added 96 rushing yards, most notably a 58-yard first-half burst.
"When we needed big plays, Marcus had them," said Kelly. "It didn't seem like he missed too many passes."
It's as if Kelly has spent the past four years refining and improving his prototype quarterback. Jeremiah Masoli was deadly on the play-fake, but not a terrific passer. Darron Thomas was a better pass threat, but not much of a factor running. Mariota is adept at both -- and he's only played nine college games.
"Their quarterback didn't make many mistakes," said USC coach Lane Kiffin, "which is unique for a freshman on the road."
"He is a great one," said Monte Kiffin. "You see how fast that guy is? Oh my gosh. He's fast and strong and everything else."
Mariota had one miscue, a fumbled handoff exchange late in the first half that could have allowed USC to get within one score, but Lee lost his own fumble shortly before halftime. But after the Trojans cut the deficit to 34-31 on the first drive of the second half and the previously sleepy Coliseum crowd of 93,607 briefly began channeling circa-2008 energy, Mariota calmly led his team on a 13-play, 75-yard drive, helping covert two fourth downs and smartly throwing the ball away when pressured in the red zone.
Oregon, for the first time all season, was pressed for four quarters. Its quarterback never flinched.
"I've got a lot of respect for that guy," said USC safety T.J. McDonald. "He's a young guy and came into an explosive offense and they played to his strengths. He knows what he's doing."
Mariota had no shortage of help, most notably from Barner, who likely inserted himself into the Heisman race (and probably would have a long time ago if he didn't spend so many second-half blowouts on the sideline). Time and again, Oregon ran stretch plays for Barner, who repeatedly ran around the edge untouched for seven-, eight- and nine-yard chunks.
"He's a warrior," said Kelly. "He's had an unbelievable impact on this team."
As impactful as Barner is, balance is what makes the Ducks so dangerous. Mariota, who came in with a 68.5 completion percentage and 18-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, went to the air early, attempting 16 of his 23 passes in the first half. Oregon's first touchdown was a beautiful 16-yard throw from Mariota to De'Anthony Thomas. One play after being sacked on the Ducks' second possession, Mariota hit receiver Josh Huff, who snaked his way to a 21-yard score.
The more Mariota threw -- and the more USC had to respect the threat he posed as a runner after his 58-yard run came on a perfect zone read -- the bigger Barner's running lanes seemed.
"[Mariota's] ability to run really makes us a tough offense to defend because he's such a weapon there," said Kelly. "When you look at the run in the first half, he's a great decision maker. He never forces it. You can't say enough about his performance."
Mariota and the offense didn't get much help from Oregon's previously stingy defense, which came in allowing just 4.55 yards per play, 15th-best nationally. USC averaged 7.7. But even Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti couldn't bring himself to be too critical. And even he was awestruck by Oregon's offense.
"Our offense was absolutely incredible," Aliotti said. "I knew they were good, but they were something special tonight."
Last year, USC ended Oregon's title game hopes with a late-season 38-35 upset at Autzen Stadium. Clearly, Kiffin's team has regressed considerably from that 10-2 season, but the Trojans are as qualified as anyone to assess the 2012 Ducks.
"They were good last year," said Monte Kiffin. "They are better this year."
That starts with Mariota. Usually the quarterback gets an undue amount of credit for a team's success, but on an offense with acclaimed runners Barner and Thomas, it's the opposite at Oregon. Saturday night, a reporter began a question to Kelly by describing Mariota's performance as "quiet."
"It wasn't quiet for me," said Kelly. Nor should it be to the other contenders with a stake in the national title race.