Someone pointed out this summer that Marcus Mariota is 23-1 in the rest of his games, but 0-2 against Stanford.
He’s 24-1 now, with 8121 career yards and 83 touchdowns (running, passing and receiving). Mariota stands tall at 6-4 and with 4.5 speed in the 40. He makes it look easy with island cool, and rarely makes mistakes. In 742 career attempts he’s thrown just 10 interceptions.
What he doesn’t have is a league or division championship, and what the experts call a signature moment or a signature win.
Oh, he’s won a lot of games and has a long highlight reel. But what’s missing is that defining moment when he’s taken his team by the shoulders and willed them to a win in a tough situation, when he’s taken over a game and simply outplayed everyone on the field.
The closest thing to it so far was last year’s Civil War, when Super Mario took over at his own 17 needing a touchdown to win over the underdog Beavers, who had a 35-30 lead after Victor Bolden raced around right end for a 25-yard touchdown on a fly sweep.
He drove the Ducks 83 yards in 9 plays in just 1:09, lacing a 12-yard scoring pass to Josh Huff a step ahead of two defenders.
Earlier in the quarter he found Huff on 4th and 11 for another 12-yard score with the Ducks down 29-24.
That was a great win with some clutch moments, but the Ducks shouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place. They were two-touchdown favorites versus the Beavs, and Mariota threw two first-half interceptions that helped put them in the hole (the defense’s recurring inability to stop the run was another). He gets credit for the comeback, but it shouldn’t have been necessary, not that way.
This Saturday the Ducks face a much different and more difficult challenge, another of those epic confrontations against a premier team with a physical presence. The Spartans are known for a nasty defense, and their offense is dangerous also, led by a strong-armed quarterback and a ground-pounding runner who breaks through tackles.
Mark Dantonio’s squad is disciplined, determined and talented, Champions of the Big Ten, the team that’s done what Oregon hasn’t in the last two seasons: manhandled Stanford.
The Spartans’ strengths are the Ducks kryptonite: ball control offense, play-action passing by a quarterback who’s a decent scrambler, a bruising running back who moves the chains, a tenacious, athletic, disruptive, hard-hitting defense. It’s the same magic box of green glowing poison that’s brought the Ducks to their knees in recent seasons: Boise State, Ohio State, Auburn, LSU, Stanford.
Based on last week, the Oregon defense will have a difficult time stopping the Spartans. The Ducks will have better urgency for the afternoon, nationally-televised game, the Autzen crowd will be electric, and they’ve worked hard this weekend on assignments and tackling form, but chances are MSU will score, probably 28-39 points.
Marcus Mariota has to read the pressure and escape it, and will his team to 40. On Saturday he has to be the great, unstoppable, dominant college football player that’s inside him. He has to step out of his mild-mannered, low-key secret identity and be a super hero. He has to soar and outrun the bullet. He has to take the game over and win the day.
ESPN college football analyst and former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti told Mike Griffith of mlive.com,”I believe he is the best player in college football, the best quarterback, the most explosive quarterback, because of his foot speed,” Bellotti said on a preseason show previewing the Pac-12. “But he (also) led his league in accuracy; he sees the field, he’s a veteran now, he makes the various reads, he can get from first, to second to third to fourth read and still use his feet to attack the defense.”
The Spartans have some very good, disciplined defensive players, but Mariota will be drafted ahead of all of them. It’s time for him to prove it, and be a franchise player. He has to be laser accurate with his reads, resourceful and elusive, smart and fast. On Saturday he has to be the best player on the field and elevate his teammates.
And then he has to do the same thing against UCLA and Stanford. Championships happen when a great player rises above every circumstance.