By Rob Moseley
This is the kind of leader Marcus Mariota is. After he’d been pulled from Oregon’s 59-14 win over Tennessee on Saturday, he remained engaged in the game, walking out onto the field to be the first Duck to greet the PAT and kickoff return teams as they ran off.
This is the kind of teammate Marcus Mariota is. When Chad Delaney went back to field a late punt, the UO player farthest down the sideline watching Delaney was Oregon’s starting quarterback. When Thomas Tyner scored, Mariota thrust his arms into the air to signal for the touchdown, and did so again more emphatically when officials hesitated to make the call themselves.
This is the kind of kid Marcus Mariota is. After he’d been pulled from the big win, a fan yelled from the stands, “nice game,” and Mariota turned to respond with a “thank you” and a thumbs up. When “Shout!” played on the stadium scoreboard before the fourth quarter, Mariota was clapping along.
This is the kind of player Marcus Mariota is. After a 2-of-8 start Saturday, Mariota went on a 13-of-14 tear to end the second half, for 334 yards and three touchdowns. He finished 23-of-33 for a career-high 456 yards and four scores, completing a passing touchdown for the 16th straight game – each one in his career – and adding a rushing touchdown for the fifth straight.
“Marcus is a stud,” UO coach Mark Helfrich said. “I wouldn’t trade that guy for anybody.”
With Tennessee looking to load up the box and stop the run Saturday, UO coaches provided their Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback the chance for a signature performance. He responded in grand fashion, overcoming that shaky start to put together a career day.
“That slow start,” Mariota said, “made me settle down.”
From the way he handles himself with teammates, as illustrated above, to his public persona, such as a charming interview with radio host Dan Patrick earlier this week, to the way he handles himself on the field, Mariota is quite simply the best ambassador for Oregon football the program could possibly imagine. Someday – and perhaps someday soon – he’ll be off to the NFL to continue his career, and what he’s accomplishing as a Duck is to be appreciated, deeply.
Take Mariota’s reference to the slow start. He might have mentioned that his early incompletions included several drops, for the second week in a row. But being Marcus Mariota, he didn’t.
“I trust those guys,” he said. “I know they’ll make a play, no matter what the situation is. These guys, when they get the opportunity to have the ball in their hands, they’re going to make the most of it.”
The receivers themselves know the truth.
“We’ve got to make plays for Marcus,” said Daryle Hawkins, one of three receivers to catch a touchdown pass Saturday. “He goes out there and does his thing, and we’ve just got to make plays for him.”
Oregon’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Scott Frost, joked that he was “going to chew Marcus out” for some of the early incompletions. He did acknowledge, at least, that Mariota wasn’t in the best of rhythms to start the day.
“Usually he’s the coolest customer on the field, including the coaches,” Frost said. “But if that’s our biggest problem, then we’ve got good problems.”
Along with designing a game plan to counter Tennessee’s run-stopping efforts, Frost used tempo to wear down the Volunteers. Injuries and a suspension sapped their depth up front for the game, and once the starters wore down and couldn’t mount the same pass rush, Mariota’s receivers had time to get open down the field, and their quarterback found them.
In doing so, Mariota became the fifth passer in UO history to surpass 450 yards in a game. He tied Akili Smith (1998) and Danny O’Neil (1995) for third on the all-time UO record list at 456 yards, behind the 489 by Bill Musgrave in 1989 against BYU and 468 for Ryan Perry-Smith in 1996.
Earlier this week, the respected “Heisman Pundit,” Chris Huston, declared Mariota the frontrunner for college football’s most prestigious individual award. Then Mariota goes out and has one of the all-time great passing performances in Oregon history in his next game?
What’s next? Hard to say, but with Mariota it will be worth watching, and celebrating. He’s one of the elite players in UO history, already, and that’s to be appreciated while it lasts.