Not so fast, my friend.
After Marcus Mariota’s impressive debut in an Oregon uniform, many fans will be ready to annoint him the immediate starter and the next Dennis Dixon, while sending Bryan Bennett back to number two. Fans loved Bennett in the middle of last season when he came off the bench against Arizona State and Washington State to spark wins, starting and going the whole way against Colorado and performing steadily in a lopsided win.
Bennett had a bad day Saturday. He was out of rhythm without a dependable running game or open targets, harried into three costly mistakes, two interceptions that included a pick six and a fumble. He struggled behind a patchwork line, falling victim to the red jersey/touch rule on a number of occasions. Elusive and nimble in live action last season while compiling a rushing average of 8.7 yards per carry, BB looked frustrated yesterday as plays were blown dead anytime the defense laid a hand on him.
Mariota, with better blockers and targets, and Ayele Forde running capably, thrived. His offense clicked in a 41-14 victory. The young islander looked poised and cool in his decision making, hitting 18 of 26 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown, in addition to rushing for 99 yards and two more tds. Mariota was so fast he couldn’t be touched on his two scoring runs, displaying impressive touch and the command of a veteran in his first live action in an Oregon uniform.
The trouble is, a lot of players have shined in a spring game only to fizzle when game time came around. Aaron Pflugrad and Blake Cantu both turned in 100-yard receiving days in recent spring games, but neither ever excelled for the Ducks in the fall. Cantu plagued by injuries, Pflugrad transferring to Arizona State. The best measure of Bennett’s ability is not his worst day of spring practice, but the capability and maturity he showed leading a comeback win against the Sun Devils last fall. In that game he led his team to four straight scoring drives, running and passing sharply.
Kenjon Barner only had one carry on Saturday, as he was held out to prevent injury. The Fighting Duck offense also missed having the services of Colt Lyerla and Josh Huff. Either quarterback will benefit from having his full complement of weapons surrounding him in the fall. Similarly, the offense has to benefit from having a cohesive line rotation and a quarterback who is a true dual threat. Both young signal callers struck downfield Saturday, Bennett with a sharply thrown 28-yard scoring pass to B.J. Kelly, Mariota with a 37-yard laser to Daryle Hawkins, a nifty 27-yard touch pass to De’Anthony Thomas, and a crisp seam throw to Rahsaan Vaughn down the right sideline. Mariota’s most impressive play may have been an incompletion: flushed out of the pocket on third and long, he rolled left and coolly threw the ball ten yards out of bounds to perserve a successful field goal try. Definitely a veteran move.
The measure of a quarterback has to consider the combination of his physical tools along with his ability to process information under pressure. Saturday, Mariota looked like one of the best quarterback talents the Ducks have ever had, in terms of his knack for handling situations and relying on his skills and the skills of his teammates. He looked special, while Bennett looked harried and out of synch. The coaches insist the decision will be based on a body of work that will extend to the end of August, but many fans filed out of Autzen Stadium chatting excitedly, believing they had seen the debut of Oregon’s next great quarterback. This time the optimists may be right.