EUGENE, Ore. -- How’s this for a unique footnote in the story of the best quarterback, and possibly best player, in Oregon football history: Marcus Mariota grew up in Hawaii and didn’t play in a Civil War until 2012, but he got his introduction to Oregon football through the 2009 edition of one of the oldest rivalries in college football.
Known around the Northwest as the (Civil) War for the Roses, 2009 is remembered fondly for its stakes: Winner goes to the Rose Bowl. The Beavers hadn’t been there since 1964, the Ducks since 1994. Led by Hawaii-born quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, the Ducks won 37-33, earning a date with Ohio State in Chip Kelly’s first year as head coach.
Then a junior at Saint Louis High, the same high school Masoli attended, Mariota watched from Honolulu.
“Seeing how much is put into that game, how much it means to fans, it was unbelievable,” Mariota says. “To see the pride and passion that’s put into the Civil War, it’s pretty awesome to be a part of.”
The 2014 edition may be remembered for something special, too: Never before in Civil War history have two quarterbacks of this caliber matched up. Their records -- Oregon is 10-1 overall, 7-1 in conference and will play in the Pac-12 title game regardless of Saturday’s outcome; Oregon State is 5-6 overall, 2-6 in conference and will miss a bowl unless it stuns the Ducks -- differ, but it’s hard to deny the talent of Mariota and Oregon State’s Sean Mannion.
“It’s very special for this state,” says Beavers coach Mike Riley. “Not to diminish guys who have played in the past, but these guys, with the records Sean holds and the talent and production of Marcus, you’ve got two of the best guys in the country in a relatively small state. They’ve impacted not only their programs but the college football landscape.”
To be clear, this is a conversation neither of them wants any part of.
Mariota and Mannion are both dramatically different and surprisingly similar. Mariota is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, a player lauded for his ability to keep drives alive and torch defenses with his legs. Mannion, a coach’s son praised for his football IQ and accuracy, is built for pro-style offenses. Good luck getting either of them to talk about themselves; besides being two of the best players in the country, they might be the two most boring. A Eugene-based reporter likes to tell of a time she sat next to Mariota at a Thai restaurant. With an order befitting of his tepid temperament, Mariota dined on pad Thai, served mild. Neither quarterback would ever refer to themselves as humble, hard-working or nice, but those are usually the first words out of coaches’ and teammates’ mouths when describing either of them.
Statically, it’s hard to argue anyone has been better for either program. Mannion enters the game as the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer with 13,438 yards and boasting a school-record 82 touchdowns. Mariota has passed for 9,445 yards and rushed for an additional 2,064 more, accounting for 120 total touchdowns. He owns eight school records.
Thirteen years ago, Oregon native Joey Harrington put the Ducks on the college football map, demanding that attention be paid out west when a billboard of him rose in Times Square. Harrington, who finished fourth in the 2001 Heisman Trophy voting, led the Ducks to a No. 2 national ranking after winning the 2002 Fiesta Bowl, sparking a conversation that Oregon should have played for the 2002 BCS title. Now Oregon looks primed for a trip to the inaugural College Football Playoff, led again by a program-changing quarterback.
“I don’t think it’s an argument -- Marcus is the best to ever come through there,” Harrington says, pointing out that Mariota is expected to be the first pick in the 2015 NFL draft. Harrington also notes that while his career was prolific, too, “we won a lot of close games when I played. There were a lot of times when the game was in doubt …
“When Marcus plays, you very rarely doubt what the outcome is going to be.”
Mariota’s value to the Ducks is no secret, Riley says: “This guy, he’s carrying this thing on his back.”
Mannion, by contrast, has had a trying year. After he turned down an opportunity to declare for the NFL at the end of last season -- he was given a third-round draft grade by scouts – Mannion’s team has been plagued by injuries to the offensive line and a young receiving corps still finding its way. Still, he says there have been no regrets about returning.
“I look at where I am now as a player, compared to a year ago, and I’m a much better quarterback,” Mannion says, adding that he “loves this program so much” he opted to return for his teammates as much as for individual improvement.
Mannion is likely to graduate Oregon State without a Civil War win -- he’s 0-2 so far, as the Ducks are on a six-game win streak -- a harmless blemish on an otherwise impressive resume but a footnote that nags at Riley.
“I do think about that, and I feel bad about that,” Riley says. “It’s such a big game, and we have failed for a long time now. I think about those teams that have won, and it’s a lifetime memory for sure. But Sean is not responsible for the whole team, and he has had some unbelievable games (in his career).”
In a season full of offensive frustrations, Riley says Mannion has been “our one piece of stability.”
For his part, Mannion finds is amusing that fans often want to pit he and Mariota against each other considering “we’re never actually on the field at the same time.”
The quarterbacks, who live just 45 minutes from each other, had never met until this past summer, when they were both counselors at the Manning Passing Academy. They traded small talk and complimented each other’s games.
Says Mariota of Mannion: “He won the accuracy competition at the Manning camp, and for any quarterback, that says a lot about their abilities. To see how he throws the ball, I definitely appreciate and respect how he plays. His ability to make that offense go has been special.”
And Mannion, on Mariota: “He’s a great athlete. He’s a good runner and gets lot of attention for that, but he’s a good passer as well. You just look at what he’s done over the past few years and the success of their team, and a lot of it should be attributed to him.”
In some ways, Mannion and Mariota seem more comfortable talking each other than talking about themselves. They figure chatter about their individual accomplishments is for everyone else -- just like the discussion about them being the two best to ever play in the same Civil War game.