Heisman ‘N’ Roses

A historic season that saw Marcus Mariota win the UO’s first Heisman Trophy could end with the UO’s first national championship

(Photo: Brad Penner, USA Today Sports)

If there was a blueprint for a quarterback to follow in order to win the Heisman Trophy, it would not involve losing three of your top four pass catchers to the NFL, and the fourth to an offseason ACL injury; it would not involve going into the season with your top two receivers being a converted running back and the reigning NCAA 110-meter hurdles champion; it would not involve losing your starting tight end before your biggest rivalry game and your conference championship game; and it certainly would not involve your offensive line changing from week to week due to myriad injuries.

Yet that is exactly what Marcus Mariota dealt with this season, and despite all of that, on December 13 the words rang out clearly from the stage of the Best Buy Theatre in New York’s Times Square:

“The winner of the 2014 Heisman Memorial Trophy is… Marcus Mariota, of the University of Oregon.”

Mariota’s Heisman win, the first in UO history, capped a whirlwind awards season that saw the redshirt junior also win the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award, the Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Award as the college football player of the year, and the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year title. He led the nation in touchdowns, points responsible for, and passing efficiency, and has led the UO to the Rose Bowl, one of the semifinals in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

He won the Heisman Trophy with the second-largest percentage of votes in history, and received more than twice as many points as the second-place finisher, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon—and “all” Gordon did was lead the nation in rushing by 300 yards, and break LaDainian Tomlinson’s 15-year-old single game record with 408 yards on the ground (a record that was set in just three quarters against Nebraska, but only lasted one week before Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine rushed for 427 against Kansas). Mariota’s 788 first-place votes were 667 more than every other vote getter combined.  All in all, not a bad effort for a quarterback who was only a three-star recruit coming out of high school, with scholarship offers from only the UO, Washington, and Memphis.

Mariota, who completed his degree requirements in general science before the season began and was described by sportswriter Ivan Maisel as the “Heisman Trophy winner you can bring home to mom,” became emotional while giving his acceptance speech from the Best Buy Theatre stage, causing more than a few people around the country to choke up—including ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who had difficulty speaking during the broadcast following Mariota’s speech.

The emphatic nature of Mariota’s win was an appropriate representation of how the regular season went for the UO. A season-opening 62-13 win over South Dakota was impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the 46-27 demolishing of then-No. 7 Michigan State that occurred a week later. In front of a national audience on Fox, the Ducks overcame a sluggish first half to score the final 28 points of the game against an opponent that will play in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day.

A 48-14 win over Wyoming and a 38-31 win at Washington State followed, before Arizona came to Eugene on a Thursday night. The Ducks were unable to exact revenge for UA’s 2013 win, and the Wildcats made it two in a row against the UO, winning 31-24.

The Ducks swept the remainder of their regular season games, scoring an average of 47.5 points per game along the way. No. 18 UCLA was dispatched 42-30, a game not as close as the scoreboard suggests as the Ducks led 42-10 in the fourth quarter. Stanford, the only other team to defeat Oregon in 2013, traveled to Autzen Stadium on November 1 and was sent back to Palo Alto on the wrong end of a 45-16 defeat. No. 20 Utah had home field advantage, but lost 51-27 to the team in the visitors’ locker room. In rivalry games, the Ducks ran out 45-20 winners over Washington and 47-19 winners over Oregon State, and booked themselves a berth in the Pac-12 Football Championship Game for a rematch against the Wildcats.

This time, the UA didn’t stand a chance. The Ducks started cautiously, scoring only a pair of field goals in the first quarter, but then went on a tear and led 30-0 in the third quarter before No. 7 Arizona scored its first points. When the clock read zero, the UO had won 51-13, securing a berth in the Rose Bowl.

Standing between the No. 2 Ducks (12-1, 8-0) and the national championship game are the defending national champion No. 3 Florida State Seminoles (13-0, 8-0), led by last year’s Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. While the UO tore through its schedule, beating opponents into submission with regularity, the Seminoles struggled, winning seven of their games by less than a touchdown. What they still did, though, was win—FSU has not lost a game since the week before Thanksgiving 2012, when current Buffalo Bills backup quarterback EJ Manuel was under center. The Seminoles have trailed at the half five times this year, but that also makes them a perfect 5-0 in second half comebacks. They haven’t looked perfect, and in fact fell in the rankings after beating Louisville and again after beating Florida, but they are undefeated—a claim not even the high-flying Ducks can make.

After a historic regular season, the Rose Bowl appears, on paper at least, to be a game for the ages. The defending national champion and last year’s Heisman Trophy winner pitted against this year’s Heisman Trophy winner and the team NFL.com calls “the best program never to have won a national title.” The storylines are numerous, and that is without mentioning just what is at stake: a berth in the College Football Playoff National Championship against either the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide—with 15 national titles to their credit, including three in the last six years—or the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes, with seven national championships and seven Heisman Trophy winners in their record books.

In the first year of the playoffs, there’s no blueprint for how to win, no script to follow when trying to beat teams with a combined 25 national championships and 11 Heisman Trophy winners in consecutive weeks.

But that’s not a problem at all. This year’s Oregon Ducks are doing just fine without a blueprint.