About 20 minutes after his team’s border-state rivalry game ended with a typical 45-24 stomping Saturday – about 3 hours after the talent gap between Washington and Oregon became apparent – a reporter asked Steve Sarkisian if he’d seen a Heisman Trophy-worthy performance from Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota.
“I don’t have a Heisman vote,” the Huskies coach answered, “but I’d be hard pressed to say we’ll see a better quarterback this year.”
As somebody who does have a Heisman vote, I’d be hard pressed to say I’ve seen a better quarterback than Mariota this year, or last year, or in any of the 40 years I’ve been watching college football.
More important, neither has Washington defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
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“I cannot think of a more difficult guy that I have ever seen at that position,” said Wilcox, author of a game plan designed to contain the 6-foot-4 athlete who is built like a tight end, runs as fast as a tailback, and combines the power arm and accuracy of a classic drop-back passer with the dexterity and nimble-footed grace of a triple threat.
Thoughts on how to defend this QB prototype seemingly conceived from a computer program? Anybody?
“The general plan,” Sarkisian said, “was to try to keep him in the pocket, and then when he ran the ball to make sure we always had somebody with their eyes on him.”
The general plan might have been sound, but there was only one problem.
“Unfortunately,” said Sarkisian, “he ran away from our guys who had their eyes on him.”
A two-play sequence, bridging the end of the third quarter with the beginning of the fourth, exemplified what the Huskies were up against. Bishop Sankey’s touchdown run had cut Oregon’s lead to 31-24, the stadium was rocking in the midafternoon sunshine, then Mariota went to work.
On a first-and-15 from the Ducks’ 29, he retreated in a pocket that served more like a fortress. Mariota went through his potential-receiver progressions, saw nothing, waited a bit for somebody to break free – he had time to snack on a light lunch and check for messages on his cell phone – and finally ran around the right side on a keeper before changing direction and cutting toward the left sideline.
His 35-yard gain preceded a another pass play from the pocket, except this time Mariota identified wide receiver Bralon Addison open downfield. Addison caught the ball in stride for 30 more yards, setting up a first-and-goal play at the Huskies’ 6.
Mariota scored on a 5-yard keeper, concluding a 91-second touchdown drive that pretty much deflated both the Huskies and the crowd.
“We were focusing on just keeping him in the cage because of his dangerous speed,” UW nose tackle Danny Shelton said of Mariota. “But the no-huddle tempo makes everybody tired. There’s gonna be a point in the game when he breaks free, and then it comes down to just having enough effort to make the play and knock the ball out of his hands.”
Nobody did that Saturday. Mariota piled up 454 yards of total offense without committing a turnover, sustaining a season-long trend. He has accounted for 25 touchdowns in 2013 – 17 passing, eight rushing – without a fumble or an interception. It’s an impressive stat, but not as impressive as this: Mariota hasn’t been picked off in 233 pass attempts.
The good news for the Huskies is that Mariota, a redshirt sophomore, will be eligible for the 2014 draft. Think there’d be any interest in a soft-spoken kid from Honolulu whose skills draw obvious comparisons to the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick?
“I don’t know when he is planning on going to the NFL,” Sarkisian said, “but when he does, I think he’ll be a top-five draft pick. He’s a hell of a player.”
For that matter, Oregon is a hell of a team. Its relentless no-huddle offense is complemented by a defense that’s almost as overpowering.
Against all odds, and despite a statistical discrepancy that suggested the issue never should have been in doubt, the Huskies managed to keep things suspenseful for three quarters. Then the best player in college football – the next Heisman Trophy winner, by a margin that’ll qualify as a landslide – took over.
Get used to this phenom, Seattle fans. The Huskies may have seen the last of him, but he’ll be available to torment the Seahawks for, oh, the next decade or two.