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.Powered by Sidelines