Mariota got hurt. In the first 7 games of the season, when he had full acceleration, mobility, and the ability to plant and cut on two good legs, he was a different and much more dynamic quarterback, a talent who could win games with his arm, his feet or his decision-making.
In the last five games, he played with severe limits on what he could do, and those limits hurt his confidence and creativity. The uncertainty spilled over to the team in the November slump. This was an offense with a painful secret, operating on 75% capacity.
Catching fire: In the first 7 games of the season, Marcus Mariota rushed 49 times for 493 yards, 10.1 yards a carry. In the final five, he carried 32 times for 88 yards, 2.75 an attempt, and eight of those carries were sacks. His passing accuracy and overall confidence suffered also, but he played through it, finishing the regular season with a come-from-behind drive in the Civil War (Ron Chenoy, USA Today Sports photo).
The dangerous Mariota in these highlights, from the season’s first six games, is the quarterback the nation will see in the bowl game and next year:
The Oregon offense has much better rhythm and explosiveness with their leader able to do everything in his arsenal. The offense doesn’t struggle as badly as it did this month if he’s healthy.
If he’s 100% for the bowl, and can enjoy an injury-free year next season, the Ducks can compete with anyone. He’s one of the biggest difference makers in college football. The injury this year derailed his Heisman chances. Able to run, the defenses that enjoyed a field day against Oregon this season will have a much tougher challenge, and the grind-it-out plan that succeeded for Stanford and Arizona won’t be as viable. People forget that in the 12-0 year the Ducks hung 52 on The Cardinal, and the following season they scored 53 in Palo Alto. Stanford used to have an Oregon problem. In two seasons, they’ve never really gotten Mariota’s best shot.
With a healthy MM and a fully-utilized Thomas Tyner, the Ducks could reach an entire new dimension of offensive productivity next year. People forget also that these two, along with Bralon Addison, are still young players. Byron Marshall and Tyler Johnstone are only sophomores. Dwayne Stanford and Chance Allen will be sophomores next season. There is a lot of improvement possible for this group. Coupled with the fact that Scott Frost and Mark Helfrich will have a year of experience in their new roles, puts the “disappointing” 2013 season in a different light. This was a young team. With Grasu’s and Mariota’s decision to return, they bring back 10 of 11 starters on offense. The offensive line alone is slated to return 108 starts next season, one of the crucial predictors of success in college football.
Marcus Mariota is the most gifted quarterback the Ducks have ever had, with superb maturity and an exceptional work ethic and character. He never made excuses. But viewing this tape, it’s dramatically evident how he had to rein himself in over the last five games. That he played as well as he did, and led this team through adversity and capped it off with a memorable comeback in the Civil War, his finest moment as a college player, shows what an exceptional competitor he is.
In the long run, the experience of playing through an injury and having to work out of the pocket with limitations on what he could do will enhance the sophomore quarterback’s game. Over the last two games, there were signs he was getting more comfortable and beginning to move much better.
With four full weeks to completely recover, he’s apt to have an eye-opening performance in the bowl game, no matter who the opponent is. He just might take the game over.