Not even the most optimistic Oregon football fan could have predicted this three months ago.
Near the end of August, the Ducks still hadn’t named a starting quarterback, and they were heading into the 2012 college football season having lost the program’s all-time leading rusher, LaMichael James, to the NFL. They also lost one of the program’s all-time top quarterbacks in Darron Thomas.
Even if you saw Oregon as having a realistic shot at a No. 1 ranking in the polls, which the Ducks achieved over the weekend, it would have been nearly impossible to predict that the Ducks would have not one but two legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates this late in the season. And that neither of them would be named De’Anthony Thomas.
The guys who replaced James and Darron Thomas in Oregon’s backfield — running back Kenjon Barner and quarterback Marcus Mariota — are both making a case for Heisman consideration, with Mariota having joined the discussion recently after his breakout performance in a 59-17 win at Cal on Saturday, Nov. 10.
Mariota tied a school record with six touchdown passes, helping prop up Oregon’s offense on a day when the running game was not producing by the Ducks’ standards — they came into the game averaging 341.2 yards on the ground, and wound up with just 180 against the Golden Bears.
Up stepped Mariota, despite having to leave the game for a bit in the second quarter after landing hard on his left shoulder. He wound up 27-for-34 for 377 yards and the six TDs, with no interceptions and no sacks.
The performance helped push Oregon up to No. 1 in the polls, after Alabama lost earlier in the day, and also landed Mariota at No.1 on the nation’s passing efficiency rating list, at 176.96. Clemson’s Tajh Boyd is second at 171.99.
And, oh yeah, Mariota’s a redshirt freshman.
That could be a big knock against him in this Heisman race — that and the fact that he’s relatively new to the discussion, at least on a national level — considering that no freshman has ever won the award in the 77 times it’s been given out.
But with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel — also a redshirt freshman — getting a lot of attention as a Heisman candidate, it’s time to ask “why not?” about Mariota.
Barner’s candidacy could hurt Mariota’s chances, of course, but there’s no denying the quarterback’s production.
– He leads all FBS quarterbacks with that 176.96 efficiency rating.
– He has piloted the Ducks to the top spot in the national polls and to No. 2 in the BCS standings.
– He’s completed a whopping 71.7 percent of his passes, going 180-for-251 with just five interceptions.
– He’s thrown for 2,164 yards, just 441 out of a spot in the top 10 on Oregon’s all-time single-season passing list.
– He’s thrown for 28 touchdowns, just five shy of tying the school record for a season, set by Thomas a year ago.
– He’s got the dual-threat capabilities that Heisman voters love, having rushed for 516 yards and three TDs on 78 attempts.
Those are some of the measurable contributions Mariota has made over the first 10 games of his college career.
The immeasurable ones are equally impressive.
Mariota’s poise on the field belies his age — he just turned 19 at the end of October — and his patience and decision-making are tremendous, and not just for a freshman.
Mariota routinely looks off defensive backs, goes through his progressions, and makes the right calls on zone reads, a key element of Oregon’s spread-option offense. He’s got a big-time arm and can really run — not just scramble — as evidenced by the handful of long breakaways he’s had this season, including an 86-yard touchdown run at Arizona State.
If Mariota can lead the Ducks to three more victories — two in regular-season play and one in the Pac-12 Conference championship game — they would seem to be a lock for the BCS national championship game.
With that in mind, and with the season he’s put together already, the Oregon quarterback deserves some consideration for the Heisman Trophy.