Don't recite the eulogy for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota's Heisman Trophy campaign just yet.
While the No. 6 Ducks' redshirt sophomore needs a lot of external help to regain the front-running status he had prior to a Nov. 7 loss at Stanford. All Mariota can do in the interim is finish the season on a torrid pace.
He certainly got the right start in Oregon's 44-21 win over Utah Saturday, putting together one of his best passing performances of the season. Mariota went for 288 yards on 19-of-26 passing, scored three touchdowns and—oh yeah—still hasn't throw an interception all season. That's 353 consecutive passes he's thrown, dating back to last season.
The injury that has had Mariota's left knee in a brace since the Oct. 26 game against UCLA could continue to be an issue. It certainly limited his options against a Utah defense that sold out on the Ducks run game.
A Utes defense with an aggressive front seven similar to that of Stanford put the game on Mariota's arm. Oregon didn't reach 100 yards rushing until the fourth quarter, in part because of the explosive element Mariota provided when at 100 percent.
Officially, Mariota tallied minus-18 yards Saturday, though his openings in the zone read were significantly limited, as Isaac Rosenthal of The Eugene Daily News noted from Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich's postgame press conference, via Twitter:
Helfrich acknowledges that part of game plan was keeping Marcus in the pocket.— Isaac Rosenthal (@IsaacMRosenthal) November 17, 2013
Helfrich is smart to protect Mariota for the long term, though the hit his quarterback's statistical profile takes as a result impacts his Heisman chances.
That makes Mariota's ability to effectively pass the ball all the more important—both for his pursuit of college football's top honor and the Ducks' attempt to play their way back into the BCS Championship conversation.
Neither of Oregon's remaining regular-season opponents has a defense the caliber of Utah or Stanford, but rest assured that both Arizona and Oregon State will at least attempt to emulate the same kind of run-contain coverage the Ducks have seen in the past two weeks.
So long as Mariota can continue answering the bell with the efficient passing that buoyed the Ducks Saturday, he can play his way back among the Heisman leaders.
Maybe the downturn in voter confidence is warranted. However, reigning Heisman winner and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel's Aggies have two losses; he was individually spectacular in both. Mariota and Oregon left opportunities on the field at Stanford, including the quarterback's red-zone fumble. But as CBSSports.com's Gregg Doyel tweeted, Mariota wasn't exactly awful that night:
Be a Manziel guy or a Winston guy, but don't tell me Mariota (25 TD, 0 INT) lost the Heisman by going 20-34-0, 250 yards, 2 TD vs Stanford.— Gregg Doyel (@GreggDoyelCBS) November 16, 2013
Where he needs help is from the surging leaders of unbeaten teams.
Florida State freshman quarterback Jameis Winston has played all season in rarefied air, while quarterbacks AJ McCarron of Alabama, Bryce Petty of Baylor and Jordan Lynch of Northern Illinois have all gained steam down the stretch, leading undefeated teams.
Any can stumble in the same manner Mariota went from pace-setter to afterthought. A loss and subpar performance from any of the leading contenders gives Mariota an opening, but there's at least one more boost he could use that's currently out of his control: winning the Pac-12 Championship.
A Stanford loss puts Oregon back in the Pac-12 driver's seat to play in the conference championship. That means a 13th game and one more opportunity to capture Heisman voters' attention.
Much like Oregon's chase for the title, Mariota's Heisman hopes need help. But all each can do is perform while the chips fall where they may.