Redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota could not have done more for the Oregon Ducks in their season opener—that is, unless Chip Kelly had let him play for more than 24 minutes.
Mariota had his fare share of doubters heading into the 2012-2013 season, and the reason for this was simple: He’s a freshman.
In Mariota's case, a year spent on the sideline looks as though it will mitigate the daunting transition from high school standout to the face of a premier program. But even with Saturday’s stellar performance, Mariota is a long way from permanently reducing sophomore quarterback Bryan Bennett to a cheerleader.
With a frontloaded, pancake out-of-conference schedule, it will likely take until Oregon’s September 22 game against Arizona before Mariota can truly begin to silence the doubters.
But, as the adage goes, you can only beat who you play. Even if it was against Arkansas State, Mariota’s performance deserves recognition. Oregon scored a touchdown on each of their Mariota-led possessions. He finished the night 18-for-22 for 200 yards and three touchdowns.
Mariota has the seemingly obligatory athleticism of Oregon quarterbacks, and one could certainly understand if his tendency were to scramble rather than put his preparation and technical skills to the test.
He resisted this urge in his inaugural performance. Mariota displayed patience and confidence, as he ran the ball only four times and took just one sack—the latter coming on the opening drive.
One of the most important factors of Mariota’s development will be his relationship with De'Anthony Thomas. As a true freshman, Thomas finished 2011 with 1,200 total yards and 16 touchdowns, plus another 1,035 and two in the return game. Mariota and, for that matter, Oregon’s entire offense, will fail if they cannot consistently devise ways to put the No. 1 athlete of the 2011 class in a position to succeed.
They couldn’t have done much better last night.
Mariota and Thomas connected for two scores, and Thomas picked up a third on the ground. He finished the game with 119 total yards. Short passes and screens are always a prominent part of Kelly’s offense. You have to think that having a young quarterback will make that even truer in 2012.
Ultimately, this season is going to come down to whether Oregon can knock off Southern Cal. The Ducks will likely breeze through their next seven games before the Los Angeles showdown on November 3. Over that time, Mariota should put up typical flashy Oregon QB numbers.
Maybe the doubters will continue to note the subpar competition, but this will have no impact on Mariota’s performance. If anything, an 8-0 record and 2,000 passing yards will just make Mariota that much more confident heading into his game with USC.
This is not the first time Chip Kelly has gone with talent over experience. In 2010, he chose Darron Thomas over senior Nate Costa. I suppose you could say that worked out for his program.