Oregon's Marcus Mariota jumped into the lead in the Heisman race with his dominant outing against Michigan State. Can he keep it up?

By Zac Ellis
September 08, 2014

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Marcus Mariota… Heisman contender. If that sounds familiar, it should. Oregon’s quarterback garnered plenty of Heisman hype in both of the past two seasons, but his struggles against quality defenses eventually spoiled his campaign.

Mariota showed Saturday why this season might be a different story.

The junior signal-caller and the Ducks stuffed a vaunted Michigan State team in Eugene, the kind of win that will last in a Heisman race. Mariota looked the part of a seasoned veteran as Oregon rallied to sink the Spartans in the second half. Now, the dual-threat passer is our newest leader in the Heisman Watch.

Week 2 Heisman Watch

1. Marcus Mariota, QB Oregon
2. Jameis Winston, QB Florida State
3. Todd Gurley, RB Georgia
4. Everett Golson, QB Notre Dame
5. Kenny Hill, QB Texas A&M
6. Brett Hundley, QB UCLA
7. Amari Cooper, WR Alabama
8. Trevor Knight, QB Oklahoma
9. Taysom Hill, QB BYU
10. Jake Waters, QB Kansas State

Jonathan Ferrey/Sports Illustrated

The Frontrunners

Marcus Mariota, QB Oregon
Jameis Winston, QB Florida State
Todd Gurley, RB Georgia
Everett Golson, QB Notre Dame
Kenny Hill, QB Texas A&M

Mariota last stepped on a major stage as a Heisman contender on Nov. 7, 2013. That’s when Mariota’s No. 2 Oregon fell to No. 6 Stanford 26-20. Fighting through a knee injury, Mariota was inefficient through the air and netted -16 rushing yards on the ground. He also lost a fumble and failed to throw a touchdown pass until the fourth quarter. That performance effectively killed Mariota’s shot at the Heisman for the second straight year.

College Football
Marcus Mariota and Oregon deliver statement in beating Michigan State

​Mariota faced his first big test Saturday since that loss to the Cardinal. In fact, many billed Oregon’s matchup with Michigan State as the best nonconference contest of the season. With the national spotlight on Eugene, Mariota redeemed himself and proved his ability to perform against a top-tier defense.

Mariota completed only 17-of-28 passes in Oregon’s 46-27 rout of the Spartans, but he racked up 318 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air. He also displayed poise after Michigan State took a 27-18 lead early in the third quarter. Mariota followed the Spartans’ score by leading the Ducks on four straight touchdown drives. He threw touchdown passes late in the third quarter and set up two more scores in the final period as Oregon’s defense shut down Michigan State’s attack.

Mariota’s position atop the Heisman Watch isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Oregon won’t face another major test until a trip to UCLA on Oct. 11. Even then, the Bruins have looked very beatable in close wins over Virginia and Memphis. But Mariota surely has a Nov. 1 meeting with Stanford circled on his calendar. If his performance against a stout Michigan State defense is any indication, Oregon’s star could finally vanquish the Cardinal after two defeats and use the win as a late-season Heisman boost.

Cal Sport Media via AP

The Risers

Taysom Hill, QB BYU
Amari Cooper, WR Alabama
KD Cannon, WR Baylor

BYU quarterback Taysom Hill probably wishes he could play Texas every week.

Hill piled up 280 yards of total offense, including 99 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, in a 41-7 rout of the Longhorns in Austin. Hill’s gaudy stats came almost one year to the day after his Cougars beat Texas 40-21 in Provo. In that game, Hill ran for 259 yards and three scores on 17 carries. At this point he should probably start lobbying for BYU to join the Big 12.

The Cougars’ quarterback scored all three of his touchdowns Saturday in BYU’s 28-point third quarter. Hill put an exclamation point on his first scoring run when he hurdled a Texas defender just before reaching the end zone to give the Cougars a 13-0 lead.

That 30-yard run was the longest of the night for Hill, who handed the Longhorns their worst home loss since a 66-3 meeting with UCLA in 1997.

Hill is a true dual-threat passer, which is exactly the kind of quarterback who can make Heisman voters salivate. Through two games he has registered 196 rushing yards (5.4 yards per carry) and five scores on the ground. The Heisman race has been favorable for running quarterbacks in recent years, as Auburn’s Cam Newton, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel all scampered their way to New York.

His skillset aside, winning the Heisman will be historically difficult for Hill. Players from outside the Power Five conferences are at a disadvantage from a perception standpoint, especially when it comes to strength of schedule. Heisman candidates need to perform on big stages, and Hill’s matchup with Texas will likely be BYU’s most challenging game of the season. Though the Cougars could still finish the year undefeated, games against Utah State, UCF and Cal aren’t going to earn Hill much Heisman attention.

Still, it’s hard to ignore that BYU boasts the last Heisman winner from a non-power program. In 1990 Cougars quarterback Ty Detmer claimed the trophy after a season in which BYU upset No. 1 Miami in Provo.

That’s nice history for Hill to lean on, but it doesn’t hold much water in today’s game. A Heisman candidate needs to have his program on the cusp of championship contention, and a non-Power Five program likely won’t sniff the College Football Playoff anytime soon. But crazy numbers and an undefeated season might make Hill hard to forget come voting time.

STAFF: Saturday Snaps: Quick recaps of BYU-Texas, more Week 2 games

Harry How/Getty Images

The Fallers

Melvin Gordon, RB Wisconsin
Brett Hundley, QB UCLA
T.J. Yeldon, RB Alabama

Brett Hundley and UCLA were expected to threaten for a Pac-12 title and a playoff berth. It could still happen, but the Bruins haven’t looked the part of a contender so far. That’s bad news for Hundley’s Heisman hopes.

Hundley’s stats thus far aren’t unimpressive, as he’s averaging 319 passing yards (8.28 yards per attempt) with only one interception through two games. But the quarterback must hope the Bruins’ defense and offensive line shape up before conference play begins. Against Virginia in Week 1, the offensive line gave Hundley very little protection against a talented Cavaliers pass rush. The defense struggled against Memphis on Saturday, allowing 469 total yards and 5.8 yards per play.

It’s possible Hundley and the Bruins right the ship before facing a difficult Pac-12 schedule. If not, Hundley’s Heisman hopes hang in the balance, especially after Mariota’s ascension to the top spot with Oregon’s win over Michigan State.

Heisman video of the week

Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah saved the Cornhuskers from an embarrassing home loss to McNeese State with a wild 58-yard touchdown grab in the final minute.


Heisman lookahead

Here’s what to look for from Heisman candidates next week:

Todd Gurley, RB Georgia
No. 6 Georgia at No. 24 South Carolina

Gurley enjoyed a bye week after his 298-yard, four-touchdown outing against Clemson in Week 1. The Bulldogs’ trip to Columbia will be perhaps the biggest game of Week 3, and the Gamecocks look vulnerable thus far. Gurley could be in for another solid night.

Taysom Hill, QB BYU
Houston at No. 25 BYU

Hill needs exposure to cultivate any Heisman hopes. A Thursday night game against Houston isn’t a blockbuster matchup, but it’ll be the best game on TV that evening, so Hill’s dual-threat antics should get some attention. How will BYU’s star build on his stellar showing against Texas?

Everett Golson, QB Notre Dame
Purdue vs. No. 11 Notre Dame (in Indianapolis)

Golson isn’t getting enough Heisman attention since returning to the field in South Bend. In Notre Dame’s two victories, the Irish passer completed 66 percent of his throws and notched eight total touchdowns. Golson now faces a Purdue squad coming off a 21-point loss to Central Michigan. Gulp.

HAMILTON: Golson showcases growth in Notre Dame's shutout of Michigan

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