Photos: Ryan Kang @rkangphoto | Taylor Wilder @taylorewilder


As the sunlight dimmed on a densely packed, yellow-clad crowd at Autzen Stadium, the collective mood became increasingly anxious. Oregon had dominated early on, scoring on three of its first five possessions to send the sold out stadium into a frenzy. But, seventh-ranked Michigan State took control in the second quarter. The Ducks’ 18-7 lead evaporated, and as the game trudged along, Michigan State scored 20 unanswered points to gain a 9-point advantage.

With just over 20 minutes remaining in regulation, quarterback Marcus Mariota stood behind center. Oregon had gone scoreless on its last five drives and was facing a third-and-11 at its own 41-yard line. Following the snap, the Michigan State defense surged toward Mariota like a wave. Calmly, he eluded the first two defenders and escaped the pocket — and rather than sprinting downfield, he shoveled the ball to his running back Royce Freeman for a 17-yard gain and a first down.

The play wasn’t flashy. It didn’t show off his arm or his speed. Yet, one subtle improvisation changed the course of the game and demonstrated why many consider Mariota to be the frontrunner for this year’s Heisman Trophy.

Oregon would go on to defeat No. 7 Michigan State 46-27 and Mariota’s 318 yards passing and 42 rushing yards set an offensive pace that would not slow down for the rest of the season.

This season, Mariota has totaled 4,478 yards of offense and 53 touchdowns. In addition he has led the Ducks to a 12-1 record, a Pac-12 Championship and a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

And it was in that moment during the Michigan State game that ignited Mariota’s performance for the rest of the season.

After the game, head coach Mark Helfrich couldn’t even muster the words to describe the performance he had just witnessed.

“I should have to pay to watch the guy,” Helfrich said.

Ever since Mariota announced that he would come back to the University of Oregon for his redshirt junior year, the 6-foot-4, 219-pound quarterback has been embedded in the Heisman Trophy conversation.

Before the season started, Oregon was expected to be a national title contender and Mariota was forecasted to be the first pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. As September approached, the media coverage on the Hawaii native was at a maximum.

Despite his quiet nature — he told reporters just days before the season began he likes to keep his “personal life private” — it seemed every day a new headline was published about the quarterback. National news organizations like ESPN, USA Today and The New York Times infiltrated Eugene. Just a few weeks into the regular season, Mariota's face graced the cover of Sports Illustrated for the third time.

What wasn’t mentioned, though, was the fact that Mariota was without his two leading wide receivers from 2013 and a left tackle, Tyler Johnstone, who had protected his blindside in every game Mariota had played at Oregon before this season.

There were moving parts everywhere and the one stable component found himself in the middle of it all.

Fast-forward to December and Mariota has followed the path of every Heisman winner before him this century.

Averaging 9.1 yards per play, he ranks just behind Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston and Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford – at the time of the vote – among Heisman winners since 1964. His 68.3 completion percentage ranks second among the last 12 quarterbacks to win and his 186.3 passer rating this season makes him the second most efficient passer to campaign for the award this century.

In his three years as a starter, he has set eight school records and has become only the sixth player in Football Subdivision history to pass for 9,000 yards and rush for 2,000.

Add in the fact that he’s the leader of a team headed to the College Football Playoff and it's apparent that Oregon would not be in its current position without the star quarterback.

Mariota has guided a unit full of underclassmen to the rank of 11th in the nation in passing yards (308.9) and fourth in points per game (46.3) — all without the players who gained 70 percent of Oregon’s receiving production last year.

“In terms of leadership, that’s the biggest area he’s improved in,” said Fox College Football reporter Bruce Feldman, who recently released his latest book, The QB, The Making of Modern Quarterbacks. “You see all the youth around him and that’s really what stands out.”

His personality is a contrast from recent Heisman Trophy winners. Before the season even began, he asked the UO Athletic Department not to formulate a Heisman campaign because he didn’t want the added attention — contrary to past candidates whose universities have promoted them leading up to the season.

Mariota, who was once described by his former teammate Kenjon Barner as “Hawaii cool,” doesn’t revel in any of his accomplishments. He ends every touchdown with simple handshakes and has been there for his teammates just as much off the field as he has on the field.

“He’s always shaking people’s hands, never goofing around on the sidelines,” reserve tight end Koa Kai’ai said. “Off the field he’s gone to help me or save me from trouble whenever I’ve needed it.”

In 2013, The Oregonian reported that Mariota showed up at Ka’ai’s doorstep at 1 a.m. because Ka’ai had “a bad day.”

It’s a striking difference between a contingent of past Heisman winners, who have been as much known for their off-field issues as their on-field performance. Recipients like Cam Newton (2010) and Jameis Winston (2013) made headlines for off-field investigations of an alleged NCAA violation and a sexual assault, respectively. Mariota has taken a much quieter route.

In his three years at Oregon, the only negative off-field headline about him came in November, when he received a traffic citation for going 80 miles per hour in a 55 zone.

He has mirrored past Heisman winners’ ability on the field, but as his teammates indicate, has acted in a manner completely opposite off of it.

“I think really his only mission is with the team,” senior linebacker Derrick Malone said. “What really does set him apart from everyone else is that he sees the bigger picture and knows what he wants to accomplish and that’s for our team to win each and every game we play.”

An example of this came in Oregon’s final regular season game against Oregon State. He amassed 404 yards and six touchdowns in a 47-19 win. But after the game, Mariota deflected the praise towards his teammates.

“This is a team sport,” he said. “Without those guys, we wouldn’t be where we are at today."

Passer Rating

Robert Griffin III

Marcus Mariota

Jameis Winston

Cam Newton

Sam Bradford

Certain in-game moments have defined Mariota’s time at Oregon.

Backup quarterback Jeff Lockie remembers his sophomore year when the Ducks were facing a 3rd-and-5 at Virginia and Mariota sprinted for a 71-yard touchdown.

“That’s not something you see every day,” Lockie said.

Senior wide receiver Keanon Lowe remembers the third game of this season against Wyoming when Mariota launched vertically into the end zone.

“When he jumped over me and the guy I was blocking to score that touchdown, that was a special play,” Lowe said.

For Kai’ai – Mariota’s roommate his freshman year – the moment that he knew he was playing alongside someone of a different caliber was when Mariota made his first start in a Ducks uniform two years ago. As a freshman, Mariota passed for 200 yards and three touchdowns and guided the Ducks to 50 first-half points against Arkansas State.

“You knew,” Kai’ai said. “You knew that he was going to be something special.”

Over two years after making his collegiate debut, Mariota will travel to New York for the annual Heisman Trophy ceremony, following through on a childhood dream of his. Mariota has been listed as a clear favorite by the sports betting site Bovada.
His teammates expect his acceptance speech – if he gets to make one – to be concise and to the point.

But moreover, they’re pulling for an individual who has meant so much to the program for the past three years. After the Pac-12 Championship — in which Mariota scored five of the team's six touchdowns — several coaches and players said that he is a natural fit for the award.

“I think everyone wants him to win for him,” Lockie said. “It’s something that would mean a lot to his teammates because we know how much he deserves it.”

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