Duck fans love Marcus Mariota for his talent and character. The modest quarterback from Hawaii is 20-2 as a starter, and along the way there have been 70-yard runs and 54 touchdown passes and a PAC-12 record 327 throws without an interception.
But last week the Ducks lost 26-20 to Stanford, and the gifted 6-4 sophomore didn’t have a good game. He fumbled twice. He missed a wide-open receiver at the goal line. Kevin Hogan made big plays and he didn’t. The Ducks lost for the second time in his career.
Gingerbread man: when Marcus Mariota is healthy, few players in college football can catch him. Slowed by a bothersome knee, he has to adjust him game and focus on what he CAN do (Steve Dykes, Getty Images).
Mariota is playing hurt. He injured his knee against Washington, aggravated it versus UCLA, and for three weeks he hasn’t been able to run with his customary acceleration or throw with two good legs planted under him. Oregon doesn’t expose injury information, so it’s only by observation and inference that fans know their Heisman Trophy candidate at qb is playing with a serious limitation on what he can do.
For his entire football career Super Mario has been able to outrun nearly everyone on the field. He’s had a burst he could rely on to get out of trouble and make plays. Without it, and against some aggressive, talented and hard-hitting opponents, he’s been harrassed, battered, and taken out of his rhythm. He’s made crucial fumbles. Versus Stanford he and the offense didn’t finish any drives until The Cardinal had built a big lead in the fourth quarter.
This is a testament to how good Marcus Mariota can be: he is the nation’s leading passer in the fourth quarter, 19-20 (95%) for 295 yards and 5 tds. That’s phenomenal. But some of that cold-blooded efficiency has been missing in the first halves of Oregon games, and it’s up to him and Scott Frost to figure out why and fix it immediately.
A healthy Mariota might have been able to do more against Stanford. If the Ducks had executed properly in the first quarter, they could have built a 14-0 lead, and shaped the narrative much differently. Good teams, however, excel at forcing errors, and that’s what David Shaw’s team did to Mariota’s in Palo Alto. For the second year in a row they grounded the Oregon offense. Discipline and physical toughness won over flash.
The loss cost the Ducks dearly in the national championship race, and crippled their reputation nationally. The only way to rebuild their image is to do the hard-won work of bouncing back, recommitting to earning another opportunity to play in a big game and then win it in convincing fashion.
For Marcus, he has to rally his team, and adjust to what he can do now. In practice reports this week from goducks.com Rob Moseley reports he is throwing crisply. The quarterback says he is ready to go for Saturday. That’s good, but he has to prepare himself to beat the defense with what he can do, not what he could do when he was 100%. For now he’s like a power pitcher without his fast ball.
MM’s habit when the pocket breaks down is to dash outside and look to make a play. That won’t work for him now, because he can’t beat the linebacker or the defensive end to the corner. He has to learn to shuffle up and buy time in the pocket. He has to adjust the clock in his head and look for the underneath options a beat sooner. Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt, De’Anthony Thomas, Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and Bralon Addison are all dangerous running drag routes, screens, and dump offs, stuff that taxes linebackers and keeps the chains moving.
Marcus has to adjust his game and his approach. He has to give himself choices and options that account for the fact he just can’t take off and run and save a play with his legs. He’s an accurate thrower who can read coverages well. He has a quick release and makes excellent decisions. Use that. Win games.
This last point is the most controversial. Marcus Mariota, for these last three games, has to stop being modest and nice. Not in the personal, off-the-field sense, but in the attitude he brings to competing on the field. Because this is his team. If they are to achieve the fourth 12-win season and the fifth BCS bowl, it’s going to be because he took charge and decided he didn’t want to lose another game. He’s got to get a little meaner about it, just a shade less laid-back, ready to stone-cold embarrass a defense from the first possession of the first quarter.
Somewhere in his praise-deflecting heart, there’s a part of Marcus Mariota who doesn’t want to be second to anyone, who wants to be the best leader and quarterback in college football. All reports are that he’s a superb quarterback and an even better person. Everyone in the state knows and believes that, or should. But for the next three weeks, Marcus Mariota has to find his inner shark-killer, the competitor on a mission to make the Stanford game irrelevant.