“Well, they have a really good player at quarterback…” the redshirt freshman linebacker said before breaking into a laugh.
Oh, right. That guy.
Oregon’s quarterback happens to be Marcus Mariota, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner who has passed for 4,121 yards and thrown 40 touchdowns to just three interceptions while leading the Ducks to a berth in the first CFP Championship Game.
Mariota, known nearly as much for what he doesn’t do off the field as he is for what he does on it, has no shortage of supporters in college football. At his Tuesday press conference, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer referred to him as the deserving Heisman winner before adding that he wanted Mariota to win college football’s most prestigious individual award. Less than an hour after that line from Meyer, OSU defensive end Joey Bosa called Mariota “the best player in college football.”
To understand how Mariota got to the point where he is now, where he shrugs off the rare mistakes he makes, you need to go back to the one loss during his only year as a high school starter. Coaches had pegged him as a budding talent during his sophomore year, but the experience factor with an older QB kept Mariota in the backup spot until his senior year.
Early in the season, Mariota and St. Louis School traveled to the North Shore of Oahu to take on Kahuku High School. They got thumped, dropping a 49-27 decision that was the only blemish in a state championship season. (Even that loss was later rescinded, though, when it was determined that Kahuku had used an ineligible player.)
“You would have never thought we were down by that much because Marcus was still asking questions, still going through his progressions, still getting the ball out,” then-St. Louis Head coach Darnell Arceneaux told BuckeyeSports.com. “We had some miscues in the red zone and things like that, but you would have thought we won the game because of our team’s attitude, and that came from Marcus.
“He was the first one at practice the next day, asking ‘What do I need to do to make my team better?’ He looked in the mirror first to make sure he did everything possible to help us win, and if he didn’t, he was going to fix those things first before he went out there and told other guys what to do.”
That attitude was a slight improvement from his earlier years, but what passes for bad behavior from Mariota is almost laughable in comparison to others. Arceneaux said his quarterback went through a spell of bad body language at practice after mistakes, ripping the chinstrap loose from his helmet.
“We played our home games at Aloha Stadium with a big jumbotron,” Arceneaux said. “I told him, ‘After a good or bad play, the cameras go to two people: the head coach and the quarterback. When you’re snapping your chin straps and your head goes down, that’s contagious to everyone else.’ I think he really took that to heart.”
With Mariota the only thing standing between them and a national championship, members of the Ohio State defense have been tasked with finding a way to stop him.
Sophomore safety Vonn Bell said the Silver Bullets are looking forward to the challenge of facing a guy who’s only thrown three interceptions this season. “I relish it a lot. I hope his fourth pick comes to me,” Bell said.
His counterpart at safety, Tyvis Powell, said tight coverage is the way to make that happen, forcing Mariota to put the ball into windows that are closing or don’t exist anymore.
Junior linebacker Joshua Perry said the best way to do that was to find ways to make Mariota uncomfortable, especially by keeping him in the pocket and limiting his scrambling. That comes in handy because one of the things that separates him from other quarterbacks is his ability to deliver the ball even amidst chaos if given enough time.
“What he does really well is he extends plays with his legs, but he’ll look from one side of the field to the other,” Perry said. “With a lot of college quarterbacks, you don’t see that as much. Some guys are just primary read, maybe secondary, and then they’re pulling the ball down and trying to go. But he’s going through all his reads and going through all his checks.
“He’ll take whatever you give him. He’s kind of an opportunist in that way, where he’s not going to force anything. He’s taking the throws and he knows where his outlet is at all times.”
According to Arceneaux, he’s been that way since high school. His football acumen came naturally, but it was also developed over the years of practice in which he spent more time observing than throwing while he waited for his turn in the spotlight.
“I always thought his football IQ was great,” Arceneaux said. “At St. Louis, we always taught our quarterbacks that if you’re not in, you have to stand behind whatever quarterback is in and get that mental rep and go through your progressions and understand where you need to go with the ball. Because he wasn’t a starter until his senior year, he really took the mental reps seriously.”
It’s all his reps in practice now, though, and the past couple years of live action instead of mental reps have transformed him into someone capable of doing something with that knowledge he developed from watching. And whether or not Ohio State is able to harass him into mistakes on Monday, you can bet they won’t be able to tell by looking at him.