The Oregon Ducks take on Arizona State Sun Devils Thursday night in an important conference matchup. Oregon is currently ranked second overall in the country, while ASU comes into the game unranked.
While they are unranked in the nation, Arizona State is definitely no pushover team. Along with Oregon, they are the only teams undefeated in the Pac 12, and the game provides Oregon with their first big test. A loss puts a huge burden on the Ducks' national championship ambitions.
Big games are not only a test of team resolve, but they also usually provide a platform for one player to stand out. For better or, sometimes, worse, someone is usually left standing out from the rubble of these important games.
Thursday night, it's Oregon's Marcus Mariota.
Alright, I took an easy way out. The quarterback is usually the focus of every game and, barring a horrendous outing or an abundance of running, is usually given credit for the offense. Fittingly enough, though, that hasn't been the case so far with Oregon.
While the Ducks have one of the best offenses in the country, a lot of that success has come on the shoulders of their potent running game, led by senior Kenjon Barner. Mariota has actually chipped in a healthy dose of rushing yards too.
It's his passing, though, that needs to be the showcase. And Thursday's game against the Sun Devils provides the toughest test yet for Mariota and the Ducks' offense.
ASU boasts one of the stingiest defenses, ranking in the Top 10 in points allowed, led by defensive tackle Will Sutton and his 8.5 sacks. It has, for the most part, been the perfect complement to an average offense. Though credit goes out to ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly, who has been one of the best quarterbacks so far this season.
Conversely, Oregon's successful offense comes in spite of their middle-of-the-pack defense and "solid" passing game. Solid, to me, is a word usually reserved for when something can be better. That's the cause of concern for those waiting on the passing game to catch up.
Will it get better? It probably will not be as good as the rushing game, but it will improve. That starts Thursday night against a strong ASU defense and with Marcus Mariota leading the way.
To Mariota's credit, he has been receiving all the right kinds feedback that would signal he's getting ready. He has stepped up and come up with crucial clutch drives when his team has needed him to. His teammates and coaches note that he has grown into his role, in such a short time, as starting quarterback for the Ducks, and they are surprised and impressed with his poise at the position.
All of this great praise and it's easy to forget that Mariota is still a freshman. It's impressive that someone like him, a freshman quarterback at a big-time school, can show such a calm demeanor. The best thing for him about that is, theoretically, he has plenty of time to grow at Oregon and prove he has the skills to be a great quarterback.
But the time is now.
He has all that time to add to the growing list of accomplishments. The time is now for Mariota to step up and start that list of accomplishments. Yes, he's had good games before, and they will not be overlooked, but against a strong Sun Devils defense, Mariota will step up and elevate his team's passing game. He will pass this test.
When you think of Mariota and Oregon's season, for better or for worse, this game will be the measuring stick.
Think of it a "coming out" party, just with a college quarterback instead of a debutante.