Oh, hello. Are you like me? Do you find college football’s year-round obsession with the Heisman Trophy tedious and bizarre? Are you tired of the endless array of watch lists based on just a few games? Are you frustrated by the politics, the misplaced hype, and the unspoken rules that ensure only a very small handful of very similar players have a chance to win? Do you cringe at the impulse to interpret every great performance through the narrow Heisman framework?
Do you still find it slightly embarrassing for the sport that Jason White was enshrined into the “fraternity” in 2003 over Larry Fitzgerald? Did you hope against all available precedent in 2009 that the trophy would go to a defensive tackle named Ndamukong? Deep down, do you suspect the entire conversation exists primarily to facilitate an “organic” platform by which to “integrate” the logo for Nissan or whatever into something you already welcome enthusiastically into your subconscious brain?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, have I got the Heisman candidate for you. His name is Shaq, and this is his weekend.
Ostensibly, Saturday’s Washington-Oregon game in Eugene is another showcase for the Ducks’ front-running quarterback, Marcus Mariota, whose Heisman campaign is back in full swing this week after a temporary lull following the Ducks’ loss to Arizona on October 2. As a candidate, Mariota was cast from the classic Heisman mold: In his third year as a starter for a recognizable contender in the thick of the playoff race, he’s a known quantity, and he puts up great numbers without a scintilla of off-the-field turmoil. He’s won 28 of 32 career starts and has kept Oregon’s offense afloat despite well-chronicled upheaval on the line and a greatly diminished ground game. He’s the Hillary Clinton of the Heisman field. Personally, I picked Mariota to win the award in the preseason and doubled down on that projection earlier this week, because he’s the only person on the midseason short list who can check off every box: great guy, great player, great touchdown-to-interception ratio. Vote Mariota 2014.
On the other sideline, though, will be a flash point for the nascent campaign of Washington linebacker Shaq Thompson, which is so underground it barely exists. (The “campaign” at this point consists of an informal poll of national experts — not all of them Heisman voters — by Athlon, which ranked Thompson sixth in the race earlier this week. He doesn’t appear anywhere on ESPN’s list or among the top 15 candidates listed by the betting site Bovada. Of course, the bandwagon was launched right here in August, when we named Thompson one of our preseason Triangle All-Stars and one of the most likely heirs to Johnny Manziel’s mantle as the most watchable player in the nation, so we’re a little ahead of the curve on Shaq hype.)
But if there’s any player capable of crashing the perfunctory cabal of humble, clean-cut quarterbacks over the second half of the season, it has to be Thompson, a defensively oriented, dreadlocked hybrid who represents the last, best chance in 2014 for an outside-the-box dark-horse candidate who’s too good to be denied by the status quo. He’s the closest thing college football has this season to the dynamic Tyrann Mathieu, and every season deserves its own Honey Badger.
Elaine Thompson/Getty Images
As with Mathieu, who finished fifth in the 2011 Heisman vote, Thompson’s statistics are entirely beside the point, although it’s worth noting for the sake of comparison that he already has more total tackles (46) and touchdowns (5) through six games than the only defensive winner, Charles Woodson, had in his entire Heisman season in 1997. Thompson is a perfectly reliable down-to-down cog in Washington’s defense, which ranks second and third, respectively, in the Pac-12 in yards and points allowed against FBS opponents.
Still, it’s important to stress that if the numbers somehow fail to confirm the totality of Thompson’s impact, that’s the numbers’ problem. What sets Thompson apart is his capacity for quite literally making plays where none existed. Of Thompson’s five touchdowns, only one — a 57-yard run against Eastern Washington — came on a designed play, which is a boon to his chances of actually getting noticed, because, like, wow he plays offense, too? (He does, kind of: Aside from the long run against an FCS defense, Thompson has eight carries for 27 yards, but he hasn’t touched the ball on offense more than three times in any game.) But his cameos on offense aren’t as impressive as what he’s done with the ball on defense, where he’s already scored four times: twice in the Huskies’ 44-19 win over Illinois, on a 36-yard interception and a 52-yard fumble return; on a coast-to-coast fumble return to open the scoring in last week’s 31-7 win over Cal; and on a 34-yard fumble return in a 20-13 loss against Stanford, as pure and personal a theft as the rules allow:
[protected-iframe id=”3353067b7172e235156224404c44e7b4-60203239-35703816″ info=”http://player.ooyala.com/player.js?embedCode=w5dm1xcDrkdrStx9zCtImzzLS-YC-FW7&playerBrandingId=9bf0aedefab04dddaf24ffe202d2abcd&width=551&deepLinkEmbedCode=w5dm1xcDrkdrStx9zCtImzzLS-YC-FW7&height=292″ ]
That was one of two fumbles Thompson forced against the Cardinal, the second thwarting a potential scoring drive inside the Washington 20-yard line. Stanford held the Huskies to a miserable 179 yards of offense and one offensive touchdown in that game, but only managed to score the decisive points in the final five minutes of a stalemated second half. With any kind of consistency from the offense, the defense is good enough to carry U-Dub to a special season, with no. 7 handling much of the heavy lifting.
Which brings us back to Saturday night, when Washington will kick off as a 21-point underdog to the resurgent Ducks. No. 9 Oregon has won 10 in a row in the series, including six in a row in Autzen Stadium. As the cliché goes, to be the man, Thompson has to beat the man: A dominant, season-defining effort against Mariota would be the litmus test for whether Thompson can be taken seriously down the stretch as anything more than an especially gifted curiosity. It’s a long shot, perhaps, but it’s undeniably a shot. A big, SportsCenter-worthy play in a Washington win — on offense or defense, and preferably both — will cement him into the national consciousness as the reliable merchant of havoc that he is, and will spice up a middling Heisman race by orders of magnitude.
The most important ingredient in that scenario is the win. Before Thompson’s arrival, in 2012, Washington hadn’t been relevant in the Pac-10/12 in a decade, and was stuck in a rut of 7-6 campaigns under coach Steve Sarkisian. Last year, though, the Huskies turned in a 9-4 record, their best since 2000, and they have the look of an awakening power under Sarkisian’s successor, Chris Petersen. For the program, breaking the losing streak in Eugene would mark another crucial turning point in that trajectory; and as the current face of the program, Thompson’s profile would elevate dramatically as one of the drivers of that success. Defenders with Heisman pretensions thrive on these narratives as much as quarterbacks.
Look at the handful of defensive finalists in the past 20 years. Although Woodson could not have won the trophy in 1997 without his contributions as a wide receiver and return man, he also could not have won had he not played on a Michigan defense that led the nation in total defense en route to a national championship. In his breakthrough season, Ndamukong Suh was the anchor of a Nebraska defense that led the nation in scoring defense and came within one second of winning the Big 12. Mathieu was the leading tackler on a team that ended the regular season ranked second nationally in both yards and points allowed and ranked first in the polls. Ditto Manti Te’o, who served as the face of a Notre Dame defense that held half of its regular-season opponents in 2012 out of the end zone en route to the BCS title game. Like all potentially transcendent players, Thompson’s star power will rise and fall with the ebbs and flows of his team.
If it rises high enough, of course, Thompson will likely come in for the usual round of overexposed, soft-focus smarm that made so many of the familiar favorites so boring and/or unpalatable in the first place, and then by December we’ll all be sick of him, too. Maybe you’re about to learn more about Thompson’s hilariously failed stint in minor league baseball than anyone would ever want to know. But if it does unfold that way, maybe that’s also a sign of progress. In 2014, more than ever before, it’s possible for the Heisman to overhype and over-sanitize everyone who really deserves it.