Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is a redshirt freshman who, up until September 1 of this year, had never played a down in college football. The best team Mariota ever faced was last Saturday against USC—in fact, USC is the only ranked team they've faced all season.
No. 3 Oregon is 9-0 and Mariota seems to have handled two hostile venues—Tempe, Arizona and Los Angeles, California—quite well.
The question is, has Mariota really been tested?
Washington State actually provided the first clue.
Prior to their contest with the Cougars, the Ducks had led their four opponents in the first half by a combined score of 133-23—Mariota hadn't faced an opponent that would dare to challenge his team after two quarters of play. The Cougars, however, were only down 23-19 after two quarters of play.
But Mariota came out of the locker room and guided the Ducks through a frenzied second half where they scored 28 unanswered points. Granted, it was against a soft Washington State defense, but when challenged, Mariota got the job done, going 21-of-32, for 169 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and one rushing touchdown.
USC provided the second clue.
USC packed the Coliseum with 93,607 fans, which is about 40,000 more fans than the Ducks' own Autzen Stadium can hold. While the Trojans kept the Ducks sweating through three quarters, it became increasingly clear that although USC was keeping the game close, USC also had no answer for the Ducks' offense.
Every time Mariota and his offense took the field, the noisy partisan crowd would eventually be silenced. Oregon didn't even attempt a punt until the fourth quarter. Under a lot of pressure and a lot of noise, Mariota didn't flinch. In fact, Mariota thrived, going 20-of-23 for 304 yards, four touchdowns and 96 yards on the ground for good measure.
Critics will argue that USC's porous defense was the reason for the Ducks' 730 total yards. But any team that produces those kinds of numbers on the road can have the last laugh, including the freshman quarterback who became a seasoned veteran after that masterful performance.
Mariota's coming of age isn't complete. But if we go down the checklist of what constitutes being tested, Mariota passes most of the milestones.
Has he played in a hostile venue? Yes. Playing at both Arizona State and USC qualifies as playing in a hostile venue.
Has he ever had to engineer a come-from-behind drive? Technically, yes. Against Arizona State, the Ducks were down 7-0 before reeling off 43 unanswered points. Oregon was also behind Fresno State 3-0 before scoring 35 unanswered points.
Has he ever had a sub-par performance that still resulted in a team victory? Against Washington State, Mariota did throw two interceptions but he also completed 65 percent of his passes. The fact that he was picked twice but still led his team to victory shows good field general skills.
Has he ever faced a stout rushing defense? No, and this is important.
Remember, Oregon is a rushing team. If the Ducks can't run, Mariota will have to become "that guy" who wins the game with his arm.
The biggest wall the Ducks have faced so far is USC's No. 64-ranked rushing defense and that unit gave up 426 yards on the ground. But Oregon does face Stanford in two weeks—the Cardinal's rush defense is currently the top-ranked unit in the country.
If the Ducks' prolific rushing attack is stopped by the Cardinal, the offense will have to resort to the pass, which puts the onus on Mariota's arm. Mariota will be throwing against the Cardinal's 104th-ranked pass defense. Advantage Ducks.
Mariota, as a passing quarterback, may never be completely tested because Chip Kelly's spread rushing attack is simply unstoppable. In the end, Mariota's status as a "seasoned veteran" or a "work in progress" really doesn't matter. Not all teams rely on the pass to move the chains and score points. Ask Alabama.
When a quarterback's arm hasn't been pressed into duty because it simply isn't needed, the question "Has he been tested?" is difficult to answer. But so far, he has passed most of the criteria for a tested quarterback.
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