Here we are, in the middle of December, also known to Oregon Ducks football fans as the most torturous time of the year. But never fear, because there is no better way to cure chronic Duck deprivation than reminiscing on the days when games were weekly, rain was non-existent, and Puddles the Duck had reason for sore arms. So turn off ESPN the Ocho’s broadcast of the Southeast Atlantic Trucker Insurance For Leg Fatigue Bowl, take a break from building your fortress for the end of days, and take a journey with me – all the way back to September of 2012.
After all, what better place is there to start than, well, at the start? What I won’t do is recap each and every game, because, well, I’ve already done that, save for the Ducks’ games at Arizona State and USC. Besides, who has the time for that? Right. What I will do is get specific. Real specific.
So without further ado, I present to you a short series of articles: the 9 defining plays of the Ducks’ regular season.
9. The Arrival (September 1, vs. Arkansas State, 1st quarter)
The Play: On 3rd and 14, Marcus Mariota completes a 21-yard pass to Keanon Lowe for an Oregon 1st down at the Arkansas State 26.
There may have been no bigger story in Oregon football this season than Mariota – the soft-spoken giant with lightning speed who seized the starting quarterback job from sophomore Bryan Bennett and never looked back, all the way to earning a slew of honors, including Pac-12 freshman offensive player of the year, first team all-Pac-12 quarterback, and team offensive MVP. Despite being a freshman, Mariota has proven extremely reliable behind center.
However, remember when he didn’t seem to be such a sure thing? Once head coach Chip Kelly named Mariota the starting quarterback, I had my doubts. I’d seen what Bennett could do. His comeback performance against Arizona State in relief of Darron Thomas last season along with his dismantling of Colorado’s defense was enough to convince me he was more than capable. As for Mariota? All I’d seen from him was a spring game performance – a fantastic one – but in a spring game, nonetheless.
Just minutes into his debut against Arkansas State, Mariota had me, and surely Ducks nation, convinced. It wasn’t his first snap, a handoff to Kenjon Barner. Nor was it his first completion, a 13-yard connection with Daryle Hawkins on the left sideline. Mariota’s coming out moment came on his fifth snap – a crisp, on-the-mark pass to Keanon Lowe smack dab in the middle of the field.
What made the play so special wasn’t just the precision of the pass or the timing of the route. It was the situation. Two plays earlier, Mariota got hit. Hard. A breakdown in protection allowed Arkansas State defensive linemen Shervarius Jackson and Nick Nelms to take Mariota down simultaneously. After the game, Mariota said it was his first time being hit in about a year. That’s right, a year. The force of nearly 600 pounds of pure manpower taking you to the ground is exactly what we in the labeling business call a wake-up call.
And boy oh boy, did Marcus Mariota answer. After a short Barner rush brought up 3rd and 14, the “Flyin’ Hawaiian” received the snap from center Hroniss Grasu, stood tall in the pocket, and delivered a dart to Lowe through four Red Wolves defenders for the first down.
“That poise that he has,” said Kelly after the game. “I think people realize why he was picked as our starting quarterback.”
A pristine pass to De’Anthony Thomas and Barner touchdown run later, Mariota had led his first scoring drive as the Ducks’ field general. And then he did it again. And again. And again. And again and again and again. All told, Mariota completed 18 of 22 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns as the Ducks put up 50 points in his quarter and a half of action.
And if there was any lingering scent of a quarterback controversy, it vanished as soon as Bennett rolled out of the pocket and delivered his first pass – about twenty yards over the head of his intended target. It could not be denied. The Oregon Ducks had found their quarterback. And oh, what a quarterback he has been.
That’s all for today, folks. Be sure to check back tomorrow for No. 8 and more local sports coverage. A quick hint as to what’s next: another star player’s coming-out party, this time on the defensive side.