Mariota Masters The Moment: Oregon Gains Playoff Leverage

The season is two weeks old. Any contender for a College Football Playoff spot will have to remain on top of its game — and its ambush-avoidance skills — for 11 more games (10 for the Big 12 teams that won’t have to play a league championship game). As the heat of early September turns into the mellow environment of early October and the biting chill of late November, the various FBS teams in the United States will undergo all sorts of changes for all sorts of reasons. The opponents they face will arrive at different intersections of hope and despair, creating the unique chemical cocktail that is a college football season.

No one’s punching tickets to the playoff right now… but naturally, teams can certainly gain leverage. No game from week two carried more weight along these lines than the Saturday afternoon encounter between the Michigan State Spartans, defending champions of the Big Ten, and the Oregon Ducks, a team hungry for success after a bitterly disappointing 2013 season.

The ways in which these teams ended their 2013 regular seasons offered a study in contrasts. Michigan State flourished in a Big Ten Championship Game triumph over previously unbeaten Ohio State. Oregon slogged through November, losing to both Stanford and Arizona while scraping by inferior teams in its conference. Michigan State entered this game intent on sustaining what it built last season. Oregon felt the burning need to build something anew, something that was interrupted last season.

The fact that these teams possess distinctly different styles made Spartans-Ducks a clash of opposites to begin with. The separate starting points for these teams in the 2014 season only added to the diversity of this Pacific Northwest passion play. Which team was going to conquer not only a formidable opponent, but a moment drenched in both pressure and sweat on a brutally hot day in the Willamette Valley of Eugene, Ore.?

While Oregon’s defense certainly regrouped, the instant everything changed for the Ducks was impossible to ignore… and it was fashioned by the young man who was always supposed to be the heartbeat of UO this autumn.



Connor Cook has become so much better at surveying a defense, but he threw two interceptions on Saturday, while Marcus Mariota threw none. One quarterback was better than the other, and that factored heavily into the Ducks' win over the Spartans.

Connor Cook has become so much better at surveying a defense, but he threw two interceptions on Saturday, while Marcus Mariota threw none. One quarterback was better than the other, and that factored heavily into the Ducks’ win over the Spartans.

Roughly six minutes remained in the third quarter.

Michigan State, once down 18-7, had scored 20 straight points to claim a 27-18 lead.

Oregon was on its heels. Michigan State’s vaunted defensive front was overwhelming the Ducks’ offensive line. The Spartans’ power, which proved too much for Oregon’s rival Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl, had taken hold for the time being. With the Ducks facing a third and 11 at their own 41, they and their College Football Playoff hopes were fading into the evening, setting along with the sun. The symbolism was palpable and undeniable. Oregon’s optimism, which vanished once it lost to Stanford a year ago, was on the verge of being snuffed out on Sept. 6, in the season’s incipient stages. This was too soon for a heartache, too soon for a dream to die.

When dreams are on the verge of dying, a team’s leader and best player has to step into the void, especially in dire situations such as a third and 11 with a two-score deficit agaisnt a defending conference and Rose Bowl champion.

Enter Marcus Mariota.

Under pressure from a Michigan State defender, Mariota saw that teammate and running back Royce Freeman was a few yards ahead of him near the numbers, on the left side of the field. Mariota carved out enough space to shovel the ball forward to Freeman, who collected 17 yards and a first down. In that sequence, all the negative and fearful energy Oregon had been absorbing over the past several minutes was flushed out of the sideline and the huddle. From that point onward, the Ducks uncorked a 28-0 tsunami over the final 21 minutes of the game. Under new coach Mark Helfrich, they buried Michigan State with the same formula Chip Kelly originally established in Eugene: superior stamina, unsurpassed speed, relentless energy… and a really freakin’ good quarterback piloting the offense to a steady stream of touchdowns against a gassed fourth-quarter defense.

Mariota needed to make that one play, though, to unleash Oregon’s best energies and reintroduce the Ducks’ best selves — not their passive and retreating ones — to Saturday’s game. The great players make those kinds of interventions in a time of crisis. Mariota — the anchor of Oregon on so many levels — was true to his identity and role in Saturday’s biggest showdown.

Oregon has bought itself some leverage. It’s not everything — not in a sport with as many unexpected plot twists as college football — but it sure beats losing. Michigan State didn’t play poorly, but it didn’t play well enough long enough to beat Marcus Mariota in Autzen Stadium.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |