The highly touted redshirt freshman wowed a sold out Autzen Stadium crowd for a quarter-and-a-half on Saturday night, pushing the No. 5 ranked Oregon Ducks (1-0) to a 50-3 lead before giving way to backup Bryan Bennett as Oregon crushed Arkansas State 57-24.
Mariota's first college start couldn't have gone much better as he showed poise and confidence leading the Ducks to seven consecutive touchdowns to begin the contest. He connected on all but one of his 13 pass attempts in the first quarter, hitting De'Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff in the endzone as the Ducks built a 29-0 lead.
Not to be outdone, Thomas once again reminded the college football world how elusive he can be with three touchdowns, two of them receiving, earning himself an early exit as well. Senior running back Kenjon Barner added two scores of his own and set the tempo for the game with an 18 yard run on the first play from scrimmage.
But, the night belonged to the kid from Honolulu. Along with impressing the 56,144 in attendance, Mariota impressed the person he needed to most, head coach Chip Kelly.
"He's got a way about him that's unique," Kelly said. "He's just kind of a laid back dude but he can make plays and he can run and it's kind of fun watching him."
Though he admitted to having nerves as game time approached, Mariota relied on a quote from his father to shake them.
"My dad always used to tell me when I played high school football that nerves are a good thing, it's human nature. It's always gone by that first snap," he said.
Defensively the Ducks held Arkansas State to just 10 points, allowing only one glaring mistake in a 72-yard touchdown by Julian Jones just before halftime. Freshmen Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner saw plenty of playing time in the first half and helped stifle the Red Wolves (0-1) spread offense attack from the get go.
Oregon's ability to force a couple of early turnovers on a fumble and a John Boyett interception demoralized the Red Wolves and allowed the explosive offense to keep finding the endzone.
The dominance of the first string allowed for the backups to get some much needed playing time. Freshman running back Byron Marshall made an impact on Mariota's last drive, getting six carries that culminated in a three-yard score for his first collegiate touchdown.
Bryan Bennett, who was rumored to be on the transfer block after Mariota beat him out for the starting job in fall camp, showed some nerves taking over, sailing his first pass over the head of wide receiver Dwayne Stanford and tossing an interception on the first drive of the third quarter. But the redshirt sophomore settled down going 10-for-17 for 108 yards and a touchdown to close out the game.
Bennett was all smiles exiting the tunnel during pre-game and drew the task of trying to keep up the intensity with inexperienced talent on the field.
"Just because we're up doesn't mean we can slow down," he said. "When you come out in those situations you keep it going."
Oregon struggled defensively in the second half playing with reserves. The Ducks gave up Even though the game was practically out of reach, this drew the ire of defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.
"I was extremely pleased for the first half," Aliotti said. "Then we played a lot of kids for the second half. There was a great lesson to be learned. When you get the opportunity, you've got to step up. We didn't do as good of a job in the second half as I would've liked for some of those younger kids to have done."
After the game, several players and coaches mentioned the importance of playing time for the new crop of players. The Ducks are relying on several underclassmen to perform right away, and making mistakes now could prevent them from happening down the road in conference play, or so they hope.
"It's not going to be perfect. It's a lot of guys' first games," Barner said. "There's no disappointment. They need to get reps."