Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota ran with supreme confidence in the Ducks’ 30-7 Alamo Bowl win over Texas on Monday. His 15-carry, 133-yard performance demonstrated the kind of dangerous weapon he can be when unleashed in the run game, but it also highlighted the double-edged sword a coach faces when turning a dual-threat quarterback loose.
Head coach Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost unveiled a game plan that called on Mariota, typically a complementary piece in the run game, to operate on designed carries early and often.
Texas’ struggles with mobile quarterbacks this season necessitated the strategy. A month of recuperation time for Mariota made it possible.
A left knee injury suffered in the final stretch of Oregon’s schedule limited Mariota’s productivity, in turn eliminating a vital portion of the Ducks’ offensive strategy. The result was Oregon’s two worst offensive performances of the season and its only two losses.
His health was no issue in San Antonio. He took to the Alamodome without a knee brace and showed none of the hesitation evident in his performances at Stanford and Arizona. Both his number of carries and rushing yards were season highs.
Still, there were a few hold-your-breath moments against Texas. Mariota came up gingerly, rubbing his leg after one big gain. After losing his helmet on a few plays earlier in the game, the quarterback had his helmet ripped from his head on a red-zone possession in the second half.
He endured, which Oregon will need throughout next season.
There arguably were not two more dynamic playmakers in college football this season than Mariota and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
For a second straight year, both recorded eye-opening statistics as both passers and ball-carriers. However, unlike 2012, injury slowed each. The two were noticeably limited in the final month, the rigors of weekly abuse evident.
Running wild after a month of time off is one thing. Replicating his Alamo Bowl performance—which was one of Mariota’s best two-way showings in his career—amid the grind of a regular season is a more difficult proposition.
Mariota and Manziel aren’t alone, as some of college football’s most notable dual-threat quarterbacks have battled injuries in their college careers. Baylor’s 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III, missed most of the 2009 season with a knee injury.
Few programs understand the sting of losing a leading playmaker like Oregon, after presumptive 2007 Heisman favorite Dennis Dixon went down late in the season. With him went the Ducks’ BCS Championship aspirations.
Of course, these are extreme instances. And indeed, being overly conservative with a player can be equally detrimental to a team’s performance.
For coaches like Helfrich with an explosive, two-way quarterback like Mariota, determining how and when they’re used in the run game can be a high-wire act.
Mariota is the centerpiece of Oregon’s very realistic championship aspirations in 2014—but only if he’s healthy, as he was Monday vs. Texas.
Likewise, he’s only captaining a championship-caliber offense when he’s free to play the style that suits him best, as he was in the Alamo Bowl.
Finding the right balance between those competing imperatives could determine how far Mariota and the Ducks go in 2014.