After throwing a conference-record 265 passes without an interception over his last ten games and accounting for 28 touchdowns this season, Marcus Mariota has risen to #1 in Heisman Pundit Straw Poll and #1 in the si.com mock draft. Kirk Herbstreit and Brent Musburger are coming to town, and ESPN Game Day features the Ducks for the 8th time overall and the fifth time in five years, the first time in the show’s history that’s happened.
Oregon football is hot, nationally known, nationally recognized and ready for the extreme close-up. Enjoy this year, because next season there will be a natural retraction: the Ducks will have a first-year starter at quarterback, lose a first-round draft pick in the secondary and 12 senior starters who embodied the Oregon Way. The wins will come harder. Downtrodden opponents will line up for an attempt at payback. 10-2 will be a very good year.
Clear eyes, full hearts, rarely loses: Marcus Mariota signals touchdown. He does that a lot. This season he’s running an offense that’s beating opponents by an average of 40 points a game, but what happens when he leaves?
This isn’t the Ducks’ last chance to contend for a national title, but it’s the best one. UCLA comes to town Saturday a battered football team that’s played 17 true freshmen and started six of them.They’re talented but young in critical areas, wounded along the offensive line. Oregon runs the football better (7.05 yards per attempt to 4.6) and defenses the run more effectively (3.25 to 3.47).
The Ducks will make it to Palo Alto 8-0, and the rest is up to history in a classic matchup of speed versus power, innovation and flash versus old school Smash Mouth. The Cardinal visit Corvallis this weekend, a game that will expose one team as an illusion and a pretender; it’s Oregon State’s first game against a ranked team.
There’s a lot of brave talk about Jeff Lockie as next year’s quarterback. Lockie’s not the gifted heir to Mariota. He’s a game manager rather than an incandescent talent, smaller and slower, a redshirt freshman who’s thrown 11 passes and run the football four times, no touchdowns, one interception through the air, an 8-run run for a score against Nicholls State. That’s a slim resume from someone who doesn’t have the wow factor or the acceleration to replace the best quarterback in school history. The Ducks take a step back without Mariota. It’s a much bigger loss than replacing LaMichael James or finding a new defensive tackle.
The day Super Mario declares for the NFL draft, the Ducks are rebuilding without a franchise quarterback. They can still win games, but it will be harder and in a different way. These next two games are the culmination of a five-year rise to the summit of college football. For the players, it’s Bruins Come Saturday, one opponent and one game. For long-time fans, it’s a two-week reckoning on a dream.