With Return of Mariota, Hope Will Again Rise In 2014
By John Baker
The news earlier this week that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota will return for his redshirt junior year had Duck fans, and most likely his coaches, breathing a big sigh of relief and no doubt put visions of a national championship run in their heads for the 2014 season.
Such is Mariota's hold over the fans and the program that there was real concern about his status among the faithful. Mariota, despite struggles down the stretch of this season, was viewed by many draft experts as a solid first-round draft pick and one of the top quarterback prospects entering the draft, perhaps behind Louisvile's Teddy Bridgewater. It is the process of fixing those struggles since the Stanford loss and dealing with an MCL sprain that can benefit him the most by returning to the Ducks for 2014.
To his credit, Mariota said that he felt it was an "honor" to attend the University of Oregon and that earning his college degree was a big part of the decision. Good for him. Not many student athletes would use the word "honor" when referring to their institution of higher learning. Such is the maturity and unique mindset of Oregon's quarterback. He's just a different cat — in a good way. Earning his degree? Yeah, like that too.
But it's on the field where Mariota will benefit the most from a third season under center for Oregon. While the Ducks were slicing and dicing their way through the early part of their schedule, Mariota was sublime — demonstrating uncanny accuracy on the run and in the pocket, as well as making teams pay with his legs in the read-option portion of this fast-paced offense.
All that changed when Stanford physically beat up the Ducks. It wasn't that Mariota was bad, it was that in a seminal game like this one, with revenge on the table for last year's killer loss and visions of a Heisman Trophy dancing in people's heads, Mariota and the offense were, well, ordinary. Mariota hit on 20-of-34 passes for 250 yards and two scores. Tellingly, he also rushed six times for minus-16 yards. The knee issue picked up against UCLA 10 days before haunted him. It would dog him and affect his ability to run and throw the rest of the regular season.
Mariota started missing open receivers more frequently and left a couple touchdowns on the table in the process. The Ducks killed Utah a week after the Stanford debacle, but struggled early in that one. Then things really got interesting with a shocking blowout loss to Arizona and a closer-than-expected win over in-state rival Oregon State in the Civil War.
In those two games, Mariota suffered a pair of interceptions, the only four he would throw all year. All four were either due to poor decisions or bad throws, something we didn't see from Mariota early in the season. He was not only making physical mistakes and struggling with a sudden physical limitation, but it appears that he was struggling with the mental part of the game as well, or at least seemed uncomfortable when he couldn't fall back on his athleticism. He was starting to force throws and telegraph where he was going with the ball. But more interestingly, he was high or behind his receivers much more often, something he seemed incapable of doing in the season's first seven weeks.
And that's why the return to Oregon for another year will be key. The college football season is a long and intense one, but not nearly as long and intense as the NFL workplace is, particularly for a quarterback. Mariota showed clear signs of mental fatigue in the season's latter stages. Remember, as a redshirt sophomore, he's still a young man and despite all the talk about his Hawaiian cool and calm, there's a raging competitor inside. He is not immune from the stress and strain of the grind. Couple that with the lofty expectations placed upon him the last two years and you can see why there may have been some fatigue involved. Additionally, the knee issue was his first real injury that affected his performance while at Oregon. Another year in the system will allow him to process the learning curve that comes from that experience and be better prepared to deal with, and play with, injuries in the future.
Remember, in the NFL they expect you to play effectively when, even with a sore knee, you take the field as a quarterback. You must be not only mentally tough and nimble, you must learn to deal with physical discomfort and ailments and be successful in spite of them. Anyone think another year of maturity and experience is going to hurt this kid? No, it can only help him and his eventual draft position.
Marcus Mariota didn't do the Oregon football faithful, the program and his teammates a favor by deciding to come back to Oregon. For several reasons, he did the biggest favor for himself. He'll be bigger, stronger, more experienced and far more ready to meet the many mental and physical demands that come with playing quarterback at Oregon — and a later date with the NFL.