by Rob Moseley
SEATTLE — One of the last Ducks off the field Saturday was quarterback Marcus Mariota, after he did a quick television interview following No. 2 Oregon's 45-24 win over No. 16 Washington at Husky Stadium.
Fresh off a day that featured 454 yards of total offense and four touchdowns, Mariota jogged to the UO locker room in the southeast corner of the stadium. Oregon fans had crowded into that corner of the otherwise empty grandstands, and a chant began.
Facing his toughest test yet this season, Mariota passed with flying colors — no pun intended. The Huskies were the latest defense whose primary mission was to stop the UO running game, and Mariota responded by completing 24-of-31 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns.
He also ran 13 times for 88 yards and another touchdown. And all of that before an audience that included not just tens of thousands of hostile UW fans and several thousand Duck fans, but also a press box that housed an estimated dozen Heisman Trophy voters.
"He's right in the heart of it with guys like (Texas A&M's Johnny) Manziel, (Louisville's Teddy) Bridgewater and (Clemson's Tajh) Boyd," said Stewart Mandel of SI.com, one of the Heisman voters in attendance Saturday. "But this performance today may put him at the top."
Along with Heisman voters from local media covering Oregon and Washington, Saturday's press box included national writers with votes including Mandel, Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports and George Schroeder of USA Today.
"Mariota's talent is undeniable; his statistics are impressive; but his poise is the reason he should be on top of everyone's list of Heisman candidates," Schroeder said after the game. "Halfway through the season, he's got to be the front-runner."
Mariota's poise — that "laid-back, cool-breeze" style as Chip Kelly once put it — was on display throughout Saturday. With the game tied 7-7 early in the second quarter, he rolled out to his right before hitting Bralon Addison for a go-ahead touchdown, and Mariota did the same on an 18-yard pass to Pharaoh Brown during the Ducks' next touchdown drive.
"I trust those guys to get open," said Mariota, who improved to 18-1 as a starter and 9-0 away from Autzen Stadium in his career. "Whenever I'm under duress, I know they'll get open. I just have to find them."
One week after suffering what have been typical early game jitters for him, Mariota was sharp from the start Saturday. He completed 13 of his first 15 attempts, and the two he didn't were drops, including a potential touchdown by Keanon Lowe. And Mariota also played into the fourth quarter for the first time this season, leading the Ducks to two final touchdowns after UW closed within 31-24 late in the third.
A local media report earlier in the week focused on Mariota's relative lack of experience in the fourth quarter, and how he might have the chance to put that to rest Saturday. He did, with impressive results.
"From the day he first got to Oregon, he's been poised," UO offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Scott Frost said. "I haven't ever seen anything rattle him. People try to pick out a new thing that is his weakness every week, and this week it was he couldn't play in the fourth quarter. So we'll see what it is next week.
"But I've said this 110 times, we wouldn't trade our guy for anybody in the country."
In this case, that's not just coach-speak. Not when Mariota's performing like he is in fact the best player in the country.
"I don't have a Heisman vote, but I'd be hard-pressed to say we'll see a better quarterback this year," UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. "That guy is special. I don't know when he's planning on going to the NFL, but when he does I think he'll be a top-five draft pick. He's a hell of a player.
"To contain him we had a couple different plans depending on what their plan was. The general plan was to try to keep him in the pocket, and then when he ran the ball to make sure we always had somebody with their eyes on him to go tackle him. Unfortunately when that happened he ran away from our guys that had their eyes on him.
"He's just a difficult matchup. And when we really tried to bring more people to keep him there and get more one-on-one matchups down the field, their speed in the slot against our safeties I thought was a real factor in the game. And then he just threw accurate ball after accurate ball. What was our answer at that point? That's what was frustrating for us."