Sunday, October 7, 2012

My, how Marcus Mariota has grown Freshman Marcus Mariota puts on a clinic in another Oregon blowout of Washington

By Rob Moseley

The Register-Guard

Published: October 7, 2012 12:00AM, Today

On a night when his parents and younger brother were in attendance together for the first time in Autzen Stadium, young Marcus Mariota showed just how much he’s grown up over the first half of the Oregon football season.

In No. 2 Oregon’s 52-21 victory over No. 23 Washington on Saturday night, Mariota was unaffected by a rivalry game, unrattled by pressure that forced him out of the pocket, undeterred by a mandate to avoid excessive contact on the run. The redshirt freshman put together a game that might not have been his best statistically, but showed off the maturity the No. 2 Ducks will need as they continue their chase for a national championship.

Overcoming an early interception and also a sack, Mariota time and again used his legs to buy time and allow receivers to get open, throwing for four touchdowns as the Ducks made Swiss cheese of the Washington defense coordinated by Justin Wilcox, the former UO cornerback who helped the Huskies frustrate Stanford to such effect a week earlier. Mariota also ran seven times for 40 yards while avoiding contact at the end of such plays, something he said he needed to work on after Oregon’s victory over Washington State one week prior.

Forced throws and big hits put the football at risk, and Mariota did very little of that Saturday.

“That was probably one of the biggest things I was trying to work on during the week,” Mariota said. “Making sure I took better care of the ball.”

Oregon’s run of seven touchdowns in seven possessions to open the season against Arkansas State remains the high-water mark for the UO offense this season. But the Ducks were pretty darn good against the Huskies. Kenjon Barner added 122 rushing yards, moving into sixth all-time in Oregon history, and the UO defense put together another command performance, highlighted by Avery Patterson’s pick-six interception, his second in two games and the fourth in three games for the Ducks overall.

What there wasn’t, in the wake of the game, was much talk of the UO-UW rivalry. There was some buzz early on about Washington’s pregame huddle at midfield, which for some harkened back to the “dancing on the O” drama from 2002. But, ultimately, Oregon won for the ninth straight time in the series — the Ducks’ longest win streak against any conference opponent, ever — all by at least 17 points.

With the Huskies once again unable to insinuate themselves into the storyline, the focus remains on Oregon, on a night when three other top-five teams were upset. The Ducks were never at risk of such a stumble Saturday, in part because their young quarterback continues to carry himself beyond his years.

After De’Anthony Thomas put two quiet games behind him with a brilliant touchdown run early on, undressing three UW defenders with his cat-quick feet, Mariota threw his first touchdown pass, to Keanon Lowe. Patterson added his interception in the first quarter, and the game was never in doubt.

Mariota stole the spotlight in the second quarter. At one point, Dwayne Stanford was streaking across the back of the end zone, but a defender was close on his heels, so Mariota checked down to his third option, and hit Colt Lyerla for a 10-yard touchdown. Later in the period, Mariota rolled out to keep a play alive, checked down again to his third option — maybe even fourth, Mariota said afterward — and found Josh Huff for a pass that Huff turned into a 34-yard touchdown.

“He’s learning every day out there, and it’s fun to watch him learn from mistakes and improve,” UO coach Chip Kelly said of Mariota. “That’s one thing that’s awesome about him. I think he played really well tonight, and if he can play at that level we can be pretty good.”

Mariota also deviated at least briefly from his typically cool demeanor. Taken down after crossing the UW sideline at the end of a run, he jumped up to run back on to the field, then turned back not once but twice to bark at the Washington sideline. A couple of Huskies had stood over him woofing, Mariota said.

“If you disrespect me or disrespect my teammates, I’m not going to let that go,” Mariota said. “There’s situations where you can keep your head and there’s situations where you need to say something. I felt at that point in time they were getting a little chippy. I felt I needed to say a little something. That’s usually not in my character; it just kind of happened.”

It wasn’t a perfect night for Mariota. His early interception was thrown into tight coverage, tipped into the air and intercepted. It was one of the first plays he brought up after the game in assessing his performance.

“Those are things that are fun to be around,” UO offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “The groupthink of excellence, the groupthink of, hey, we can do things better. That’s invaluable.”

The Ducks hit the halfway mark of the regular season Saturday, and are bowl eligible with the win, a trivial matter for a team with the biggest of goals. More important is that they continue to play top-notch defense and have an offense that shows tangible gains week to week, with Mariota setting the tone.

After a bye, Oregon’s schedule gets serious, with a road trip to Arizona State, and then, two weeks later, another to play at USC. When it’s national titles you’re playing for, the margin of error is small. The Ducks know that.

“I’m really excited about the way we’re playing,” UO defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. “But we’re just 6-0.”

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