by Rob Moseley
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — One of Oregon's practices this week began with a "clutch" drill, the offense put in the position of needing to drive for a game-winning touchdown with little time left on the clock.
A considerable chunk of field was still left to traverse when Marcus Mariota dropped back to pass. Seeing nothing but trouble, he pulled the football down and took off, weaving his way upfield and not stopping until he reached the end zone.
It was the sort of moment the Ducks have seen a few times from their quarterback in recent weeks, producing awe-struck whispers and knowing glances on the sideline. After being dogged by a knee problem in the second half of the regular season, Mariota is back to looking like himself.
"Right now, I feel good," the UO sophomore said Saturday, at a press conference leading up to Monday's Alamo Bowl against Texas (3:45 p.m. PT, ESPN). "Since the last month, I feel the most healthy I've been."
For an Oregon offense that looked out of sorts after Mariota was injured against UCLA on Oct. 26, that's good news. The Ducks have also welcomed a return to health for sophomore running back Byron Marshall, who managed three carries for four yards over the final two games of the regular season, leaving him at 995 yards for the season entering Monday.
"A month off does a lot, it does a whole lot," said Marshall, who missed the Civil War with a lower leg injury suffered at Arizona. "I still don't think anyone's 100 percent, but where we're at is where we're at, and I think people are definitely ready to go and ready to play."
The injury to Mariota had a massive impact on Oregon's season, and his Heisman Trophy hopes. The Ducks were averaging 55.6 points and 632.1 yards per game entering their trip to Stanford that opened November, and Mariota was atop the Heisman race. He averaged 63.9 rushing yards during Oregon's 8-0 start, and that despite a season-low 18 against the Bruins, the day Mariota suffered what assistant coach Scott Frost revealed Saturday was a partially torn MCL.
With Oregon's dual-threat quarterback suddenly limited to being a pocket passer, the offense was shut out into the fourth quarter by the Cardinal. Mariota ran for a total of minus-34 yards that night and in a win over Utah a week later, but the Ducks then lost again at Arizona, where Marshall was injured.
"The bowl preparation gives you a chance for some of the guys with minor injuries to get back healthy again," said Frost, the UO offensive coordinator. "Certainly some of those guys are still a little beat up. But I think they're excited and healthy enough to fight it out with Texas, and really looking forward to the game."
That "clutch" period, at practice Friday, seemed to demonstrate an offense firing on all cylinders. At first, the scenario required just a field goal for the offense to win the drill. But Mariota connected with Bralon Addison for a touchdown pass, and Jeff Lockie reached the end zone on a run with the No. 2 offense.
"I think guys are just excited, ready to go," receiver Keanon Lowe said. "A month off of hitting people, you're just ready to get back out there and try to compete."
The Ducks face a Texas defense that allows 5.37 yards per play, ranking 51st in the country, 42 spots below the UO defense. The Longhorns are big, fast and physical, UO players said.
But they've also struggled against teams with running quarterbacks, such as BYU and Baylor.
Frost mentioned Baylor, Oklahoma State and Ole Miss as teams that look similar to the Ducks offensively. That trio handed Texas its three losses after new defensive coordinator Greg Robinson took over in September.
"We don't expect there to be a lot of glaring holes in what they do," Frost said. "Especially when you have extra time to prep for a bowl game, there's not much that's going to surprise you. We have to try to line up with them and beat them. That's what we'll do."
Frost also declared Mariota "healthy and ready to go," and said that "we're expecting Marcus to tuck it under and run a little bit."
Doing so could help the Ducks limit the two most dangerous Texas defenders, ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Cedric Reed.
When Mariota is a threat in the run game, Oregon can attack a defensive player without even blocking him. Mariota can read a defensive end to determine whether the quarterback will keep the ball in the option or hand off.
"To be able to have that in your offense makes it (so you can), not necessarily take them out of the game, but it makes them have to make a decision," Mariota said. "Hopefully we can make them make the wrong decision."
And the Ducks hope to do so right off the bat. They were unable to do that at Stanford and Arizona, letting the opposition set the tone in their two defeats. They probably won't be able to survive a similar start Monday, against a Texas team that figures to be buoyed by a partisan crowd, and motivated to send outgoing coach Mack Brown off with a win.
"We know we've kind of got to kill their vibe, just because they have a lot going for them early," Marshall said. "I feel like if we come out and handle our business early, we should be OK."