Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week, QB Curve will keep you up to speed on the game’s most important position by putting a different college signal-caller in the spotlight and putting the rest of the field in perspective.
QB of the Week: Oregon’s Marcus Mariota
Typecasting — The Franchise: Oregon’s offense is a well-established marvel of modern gridiron science, to such an extent that it’s almost impossible not to take the Ducks’ production for granted. At some point, the machine became a fixture of the landscape, consistently humming along in the background. Beginning with Chip Kelly’s arrival as offensive coordinator, in 2007, Oregon has led the Pac-12 in scoring offense seven years in a row, and is well on its way to making it eight straight. That streak survived Kelly’s promotion to head coach, in 2009, and the switch to Mark Helfrich last season upon Kelly’s departure. It thrived for years under the likes of Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas, two wildly productive college quarterbacks who were subsequently ignored at the next level and quickly forgotten outside of the Pacific Northwest. The machine plugs in new parts in place of the old ones and rolls on.
All of which is to say that it would have been very, very easy to dismiss Marcus Mariota as yet another product of the assembly line, and his transcending the “system quarterback” label that was so easily appended to his predecessors is a testament to his raw talent, longevity, and consistency. Sheer production is one thing: As a redshirt junior, Mariota already boasts a laundry list of school and conference records, including the Pac-12 mark for career touchdowns (99 passing, 25 rushing, 2 receiving) and the Oregon marks for total offense (11,943) and passing yards (9,812). His efficiency rating has escaped the coils of earth’s orbit, as we’ll discuss below. But Mariota also checks every box according to pro scouts, who are rightfully skeptical of flamboyant college stats in general, yet still have so few nits to pick with his game that at least one of them has resorted to wondering aloud if Mariota is too nice. Nobody is perfect, but right now the kid from Honolulu who started as a scrawny, three-star prospect is getting pretty damn close.
Close, but not there yet. From here, the last remaining steps to collegiate nirvana will be the steepest, and arguably the most important to fixing Mariota’s place in the historical firmament. Despite a 34-4 record as a starter, Mariota has yet to claim a championship of any kind: Oregon ceded back-to-back Pac-12 titles in 2012 and ’13 to Stanford, settling instead for a pair of top-10 finishes in the AP poll in lieu of a shot at the national crown that seemed very much within the Ducks’ grasp in both seasons. This year, they’ve rebounded from an October lapse against Arizona to win seven straight, the last six by at least 18 points apiece. On Friday night, Mariota will get another crack at the Wildcats, winners of the Pac-12 South, with a conference championship on the line and a certain playoff bid to follow if the Ducks win. Run that gantlet, and his name will never fade.
At His Best: Initially, Mariota was regarded as a run-first type — basically a taller, skinnier version of Masoli — and he’s been consistently productive on the ground with 2,103 yards (including negative yardage on sacks) and 25 rushing touchdowns in his career; he’s on pace to finish as Oregon’s second-leading rusher for the third season in a row, no minor feat on an attack that leads the Pac-12 in rushing on an annual basis.1 Defending Mariota at full speed is the equivalent of defending an every-down tailback who also happens to be the best passer in the country.
Mariota actually outrushed big-play specialist De’Anthony Thomas in 2012 and 2013 on roughly the same number of carries, breaking 23 runs of 20 yards or longer to Thomas’s 16.
I could go on about Mariota’s athleticism, especially his game-changing, third-and-long scramble against Michigan State, or his game-changing, fourth-and-long escape at Washington State a few weeks later, two plays without which Oregon might not be in playoff position. But space is limited, and the real hosannas must be conserved for his growth as a passer. By the end of his redshirt freshman season, in 2012, Mariota’s big-league arm was already beginning to outshine his legs, and he finished as the most efficient passer in the Pac-12 that year and the next with ratings north of 160. This year, he’s been operating on another plane entirely:
The consistency on display in that chart is jaw-dropping. In 12 games, Mariota has passed for multiple touchdowns in all 12; completed at least 60 percent of his passes in 11; passed for at least 250 yards in nine; averaged at least 9.5 yards per attempt in eight; and turned in an efficiency rating of 190.0 or higher in seven. After last weekend’s evisceration of Oregon State, only one other FBS passer (Colorado State’s Garrett Grayson) is within 20 points of Mariota’s 190.2 rating for the year. If that number holds up in the postseason, it will leave him just a whisker shy of Russell Wilson’s 2011 swan song at Wisconsin as the most efficient passing season in FBS history.
Remove the cupcakes from the equation and Mariota still ranks no. 1 nationally in efficiency against opponents from Power 5 conferences. Filter for ranked opponents, and he ranks third among players who have faced more than one. He’s yet to have a bad game, or even a mediocre one by anyone else’s standards. The best defenses on the schedule (Michigan State, UCLA, Stanford, and Utah) were torched for 46, 42, 45, and 51 points, respectively, easily the most the Bruins, Cardinal, and Utes have allowed to anyone.2 In summation: Whether or not Mariota is at his best on a given Saturday, he’s still almost certain to be better than anyone else the opposing defense has encountered.
Michigan State also allowed 49 points to Ohio State.
At His Worst: There’s no use pretending that Mariota has some glaring, persistent Achilles’ heel, but on the exceedingly rare occasions he has made mistakes this season, it’s been the result of pressure: Despite his elusiveness, Michigan State, Washington State, Arizona, Washington, Utah, and Oregon State all sacked him at least three times. At midseason, the Ducks’ pass protection problems were verging on catastrophe; in consecutive games, Mariota was dropped seven times by Wazzu and five times by Arizona, including a blindside strip-sack by outstanding Wildcats linebacker Scooby Wright III that clinched the upset:
In fairness to the offensive line, it’s been on much steadier footing since the return of senior tackle Jake Fisher following the Arizona game, especially in a reassuringly lopsided win over a Stanford outfit that had manhandled the Ducks at the line of scrimmage the previous two years. Still, the front five will likely line up Friday night without its anchor, senior center Hroniss Grasu, who remains “day to day” with a bum ankle. Mariota hasn’t missed Grasu the last two weeks against token resistance from Colorado and Oregon State; against Arizona, though, the margin for error will be significantly lower.
To Saturday Friday and Beyond: Oregon is a two-touchdown favorite on Friday, a spread that the Wildcats will no doubt interpret as a slap in the face given that they’re responsible for the last two of Mariota’s four defeats as a starter. Winning the Pac-12 crown is the first key to the promised land; if the Ducks unlock that door, a blockbuster semifinal against (probably) Alabama or Florida State will be the next. For the type of fan who still insists on stereotyping Oregon’s up-tempo philosophy as “flashy” or “soft,” Mariota still has something to prove against that caliber of talent from the South.
For the type of fan who has actually seen him play on a regular basis, though, the home stretch isn’t about proving anything so much as securing the legacy that Mariota deserves. It’s a formality, really. Save an individual honor or two to be doled out in the next few weeks, Mariota’s résumé is already voluminous enough to cover both sides of a Hall of Fame ballot, single-spaced. He’s already one of the undeniably great college quarterbacks of the decade, right up there with Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Johnny Manziel. From here, a championship would elevate Mariota to the top of that list, and onto the short list of the best ever.
Reggie Collier “Athlete” of the Week: Illinois’s Reilly O’Toole
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The Reggie Collier “Athlete” All-Stars honor quarterbacks who best embody the “dual threat” ethos of their inspiration, the first player to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season.
“Reilly O’Toole” sounds more like the nom de plume of a mediocre midcentury author than a Big Ten quarterback, and at times over the past four years, O’Toole has played like someone who’d be better off in publishing. On Saturday, though, he was at his best in his final regular-season game, a 47-33 win at Northwestern that saw O’Toole rack up 294 total yards (147 rushing, 147 passing) and three touchdowns in the victory. As a team, Illinois set new highs for points, rushing yards (291), and yards per carry (6.2) against a Big Ten opponent under head coach Tim Beckman, with O’Toole serving as the primary rusher for the first time in his career.
By all accounts, the Illini also saved Beckman from the chopping block by wrapping up a spot in an unrecognizable bowl game,3 which may or may not count as a positive development, depending on your perspective. In Beckman’s first 19 B1G games, Illinois was 1-18, losing by an average margin of 19.5 points per game. Since late October, though, the Illini are 3-2 in the conference with upsets over a pair of soon-to-be bowl teams (Minnesota and Penn State) and a comfortable road win over their in-state rival. So either (a) the most hard-luck outfit in the league has quietly turned a corner, or (b) they’ve just committed themselves to another year in an ever-deepening hole. Tune in next fall!
QB Curve Power Hour!
Who’s pumped for the Quick Lane Bowl?!
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Ranking the nation’s best quarterbacks after Week 14.
1. Marcus Mariota, Oregon. Seriously, dude’s TD-to-INT ratio is 36-to-2. (Last Week: 1)
2. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State. I’ve been reluctant to elevate Barrett too high too quickly, having learned my lesson during the brief ascendance (and spectacular descent) of Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill earlier this year. With a full regular season under his belt, though, it’s only fair to reward Barrett for sustaining his blistering pace statistically and for largely carrying Ohio State to the doorstep of a playoff bid as a mere redshirt freshman. All of which makes his season-ending ankle injury in the Buckeyes’ win over Michigan infuriatingly unfair. (LW: 5)
3. Brett Hundley, UCLA. Hundley fell back to the pack a bit in the Bruins’ uninspired, 31-10 loss to Stanford, but that didn’t affect his efficiency rating against ranked teams, which remains the best in the nation among quarterbacks who have faced more than one. (LW: 2)
4. Trevone Boykin, TCU. Boykin fares relatively poorly in my go-to statistic, pass efficiency, where he ranks just outside of the top 40. Then again, he also accounts for 67 percent of the total yards for an attack that ranks fifth nationally in total offense. (LW: 9)
5. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State. I wasn’t particularly impressed with Prescott in person during the Bulldogs’ deflating, 31-17 loss to Ole Miss, and I doubt he’ll wind up on the short list next week of Manhattan-bound finalists for the Heisman. Still, I’ll be surprised if league coaches don’t make him Mississippi State’s first All-SEC quarterback. (LW: 3)
6. Blake Sims, Alabama. Sims balanced three interceptions against Auburn with four touchdown passes, three of them to Amari Cooper, who was like an electrifying priest absolving his quarterback of past sins. Still, at this juncture of the season, another glut of giveaways outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium — where Sims has been dramatically better than he’s been on the road — could spell doom. (LW: 7)
7. Nick Marshall, Auburn. I’m not entirely certain how to divvy up credit for Marshall’s career-high, 456-yard assault on Alabama’s secondary between Marshall and his outrageously gifted deep threats, Sammie Coates and Duke Williams, and I don’t really care as long as the Tigers remain committed to heaving a dozen downfield bombs every week come hell or high water. (LW: 8)
8. Bryce Petty, Baylor. Petty insists he’s good to go for this weekend’s all-important date with Kansas State, despite suffering an apparent concussion in the Bears’ win over Texas Tech. “I feel great,” he told reporters Monday. “Woke up this morning and just happy to be alive and be breathing. You can’t ask for much more than that.” Um, I’m sure Baylor fans can think of a few things. (LW: 6)
9. Jake Waters, Kansas State. Very quietly, Waters has taken over the top spot as the most efficient passer in the Big 12, ahead of Petty and Boykin, while also handling nearly 11 carries per game as a rusher. If he manages to grind the Wildcats past Baylor on Saturday, rest assured it will not go unnoticed. (LW: NR)
10. Jameis Winston, Florida State. Winston’s stat line against Florida was the worst of his career in every respect, resulting in new lows for completions (12), completion percentage (50.0), passing yards (125), yards per attempt (5.2), and pass efficiency (87.9), as well as a new high for interceptions (4). If he weren’t the reigning Heisman winner, he wouldn’t be on this list at all. In fact, if the Seminoles weren’t riding a 25-game winning streak with Winston behind center, he probably would have been bounced weeks ago. But he is and they are, so deal with it, America. (LW: 4)
Waiting: Connor Cook (Michigan State), Brandon Doughty (Western Kentucky), Garrett Grayson (Colorado State), Cody Kessler (USC), Bo Wallace (Ole Miss)