What Oregon’s loss means for Marcus Mariota’s Heisman hopes

Washington State v Oregon

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota entered Thursday night’s game with Arizona in Eugene as the Heisman front runner.

He left it with his Heisman status in doubt, as the Wildcats came away with a 31-24 victory.

Let’s first go over what Mariota did in the game. The final stats show that he completed 20 of 32 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for one yard on nine carries (he was sacked several times), and caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from running back Royce Freeman.

While this was his worst passing outing of the season, it was still pretty productive. Certainly anyone who watched the game did not come away thinking that Mariota was the reason the Ducks lost. That fault would most definitely lie with the decimated Oregon offensive line, the tackle-averse Duck defense and (perhaps) the flag-happy Pac-12 referees.

However, Mariota did let Arizona’s Scooby Wright strip the ball from his hands on Oregon’s final drive, which enabled the Wildcats to secure the huge upset. Mariota was robbed of a chance to pull off a dramatic Heisman moment.

All that ultimately matters, though, is what this game meant to Heisman voters. How did it play in Heisman Peoria, so to speak?

My sense is that it opens the door for voters to flirt with a host of other candidates, at least in the short run. Old doubts about Mariota (and Oregon) have returned, so a ‘wait-and-see’ approach will be taken before he is allowed to be received back into the fold.

On the plus side, it’s probably good for Mariota that this loss came relatively early in the season. There is still plenty of time for him to help the Ducks to recover and win the Pac-12, which would probably lead to a berth in the College Football Playoff.

Second, Mariota’s stat sheet continues to impress. He now has 1,411 passing yards with 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions, plus 215 rushing yards and three scores, along with one reception for a TD. That puts him on pace for over 4,000 yards of total offense and 46 total touchdowns, which is right in line with what recent Heisman-winning quarterbacks have produced.

If the Ducks finish with just this Arizona loss and Mariota’s production continues at this level, then he’s going to remain a formidable candidate and could even reclaim his front runner status at some point. After all, despite what you may hear, going undefeated is not required to win the Heisman. Indeed, four of the last seven Heisman winners played for teams that lost at least one game (three of them lost at least two games). Mariota still has the most impressive win of any leading candidate (the Ducks’ romp over Michigan State) and, what’s more, upcoming games against No. 8 UCLA and No. 14 Stanford will provide an opportunity for him to rebound.

On the negative side, this loss hurts Mariota more than it might another candidate because a big part of his appeal was that he was seen as the leader of an undefeated Ducks team that was challenging for a national title. This loss dampens that appeal. It also calls into question whether Mariota has what it takes to help Oregon get over the hump. After all, the Ducks were crushed by Arizona last season, too. Same song, second verse. The optics aren’t good.

While there are certainly extenuating circumstances to explain this loss — primarily the rash of injuries along the offensive line — it is not certain that the Heisman electorate will take this into account when it’s time to fill out the ballots.

Furthermore, how many will remember come December the circumstances of Mariota losing the ball at 2 a.m. East Coast Time on Oregon’s final drive against the Wildcats? By then, there will be a whole season’s worth of data and performances to consider.

It seems to be a no-brainer that Mariota is no longer the front runner after this game, but my sense is that he’s still very much in this race…at least for now. As for who replaces him as the front runner, we’ll know more after this weekend. That position is wide open and taking applications.

In the meantime, every game now becomes crucial for Mariota’s candidacy. Perhaps losing to Arizona will ease some of the pressure of being the Heisman front runner, allowing him to bounce back even stronger. Or, maybe it augurs a relative collapse for the Ducks, who have a lot of festering issues to deal with.

Whatever the case, this Heisman race is turning into a dog fight. Mariota will need to show he’s more bite than bark if he’s going to come out on top.

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About Heismanpundit

Chris Huston, A.K.A. ‘The Heisman Pundit‘, is a Heisman voter and the creator and publisher of Heismanpundit.com, a site dedicated to analysis of the Heisman Trophy and college football. Dubbed “the foremost authority on the Heisman” by Sports Illustrated, HP is regularly quoted or cited during football season in newspapers across the country. He is also a regular contributor on sports talk radio and television.

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3 Responses to What Oregon’s loss means for Marcus Mariota’s Heisman hopes

  1. Hawkinsob October 3, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    This loss was not on Mariota for the reasons you listed. But I understand the offensive line issues may not be that well known to most voters. I have to comment on the “going undefeated is not required” point. That is an issue that voters seem to be very inconsistent about. A&M lost 2 games the year Manziel won it (and Manziel had 0 TDs and 3 INTs in one of those losses). But he still won. But in other cases, people seem to be of a mindset that if a player’s team loses a single game, they are basically brushed aside. Shouldn’t be the case with Mariota.

    • David October 3, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

      Griffin had 3 losses. Two of them by 28+ points. The Griffin Heisman is still the biggest mystery of all winners in the past 20 years especially given who he was up against. 9-3 in the worst major conference in the country.

      Mathieu was clearly the best player that year, but he was primarily a defender, Luck was clearly the best QB that year and took his team to a BCS bowl. Richardson was the best offensive player on the eventual national champion. And griffin was a gimmick QB in a read option system with 3 losses in the worst major conference in college football that year.

      Most bizarre Heisman choice of all time, by a mile.

      Tebow won it on a 3 loss team.

      • Heismanpundit October 3, 2014 at 5:22 pm #

        Context matters a lot with the Heisman. Yes, Baylor lost three games, but it had its best season in 20-plus years and the Bears beat Texas and OU in the same season for the first time ever. Since Baylor was never expected to go undefeated, the losses didn’t hurt as much. RG3 was credited with making Baylor relevant.

        Baylor is not a read option offense. RG3 had a magnificent season and captured the imagination of the Heisman electorate and that’s why he won.

        The most bizarre Heisman choice in recent years is actually Mark Ingram.