The Oregon Ducks faced their first big test of the season on Saturday in Seattle. After pulling away from the Washington Huskies for a decisive 45-24 victory, it's safe to say they passed the test.
Led by quarterback Marcus Mariota, the Ducks stared adversity in the face for the first time all season and didn't blink. In their first game against a ranked opponent all season, the Ducks came through when the pressure was on.
Early in the third quarter, it looked like the Huskies had gained enough momentum to make the Ducks sweat in the second half for the first time all season. The Huskies cut the Oregon lead to 21-14 on running back Bishop Sankey's 60-yard touchdown run on fourth down with 13:44 remaining in the third quarter.
The Huskies were hyped up on the sideline, and the Washington crowd was going crazy. The players were hoping to capitalize on the momentum they had created with a gutsy call that resulted in a huge play.
Everyone in black and purple thought they had the Ducks right where they wanted them. Little did they know, that was the closest the No. 16 Huskies would get.
Despite the atmosphere in the stadium, no one in Oregon colors thought twice about what was going on around them. It has been proven time and time again that it will take a lot more than a couple of big plays and some crowd noise to topple the Ducks and their star quarterback.
Mariota and the Oregon offense took over from there, outscoring the Huskies 24-10 the rest of the way. The first Oregon score of the second half came just 40 seconds after Sankey's long run. Mariota hit Josh Huff in stride for a 65-yard touchdown on the third play of the ensuing drive to give the Ducks a 28-14 lead.
Oregon turned up the pressure on defense and smothered Husky quarterback Keith Price with a relentless pass rush the rest of the way. The defense was impressive against the dynamic Husky offense, but once again it was the Oregon offense that put the game away.
With the national spotlight on the Northwest rivalry, Mariota's performance ensured that his name will remain near the top of the Heisman race for as long as he is taking snaps for the Ducks.
The silky-smooth sophomore refuses to be fazed by any situation. He was great on the road against USC in 2012 and even better in Seattle on Saturday. Playing in big games on the road does nothing to Mariota's mindset. It might even make him better.
Mariota went 24-of-31 for 366 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He added 88 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. It was the eighth consecutive game that he has passed and rushed for a touchdown in the same game.
What makes his performance even more impressive is that the Huskies came into the game with the nation's fourth-ranked pass defense. The Huskies' defense was 10th in the country entering Saturday's game. After Mariota and the Ducks put up 631 total yards against them, the Huskies now rank 12th in pass-efficiency defense and 22nd in total defense.
Mariota's performance would have been even better if not for a couple of drops by Oregon's wide receivers. Mariota hit receiver Keanon Lowe in stride for what looked like a sure 41-yard touchdown on the Ducks' opening possession, but the ball fell to the turf after hitting Lowe in the hands.
Despite the drops, Mariota put on a performance that should silence some of the critics that pointed to Oregon's soft schedule as a reason to keep him from the top spot in the Heisman race. The schedule gets tougher from here, but don't expect to see a drop-off from Mariota.
Oregon still has regular-season games against Stanford and two matchups with teams that also boast legitimate Heisman candidates at quarterback in Brett Hundley (UCLA) and Sean Mannion (Oregon State).
This season is unique due to the number of legitimate candidates that remain in the mix for college football's biggest individual prize. With an outstanding group of Heisman candidates led by the reigning winner, Johnny Manziel, Mariota has to be near perfect every time out if he hopes to bring home the hardware.
With a 6-0 record, 25 total touchdowns and zero turnovers to his credit, he has been close to perfect through the first six games.
Six games remain in the regular season and a seventh game is possible. If Mariota can navigate the Ducks to a Pac-12 North title, the final week of the season would provide a huge stage for Mariota to improve his chances, as the Pac-12 Championship Game would await.
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