- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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Contrary to what you see on the field, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is in fact a human being. And as a human, he is susceptible to the same emotions as everyone else. Yes, he gets excited. Yes, he gets nervous. And yes, he even occasionally gets just a little bit scared.
But what has set Mariota apart from his contemporaries is that he’s able to keep those emotions in check. He never gets too excited. Or too nervous. And fear? Well, he’s only let fear creep underneath his helmet one time in his career.
That would be in last year’s 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford in Eugene, the lone smudge on an otherwise exquisite resume. The quarterback of the No. 3 Ducks is 20-1 as a starter heading into Thursday’s showdown with the No. 5 Cardinal in Palo Alto, Calif. The “1” lingers heavily for Mariota this week. Not as a symbol of failure, but rather a badge of experience.
“Being able to go through losing and being able to deal with failure a little bit was good in the sense that it helps me overcome that fear,” Mariota said. “Just being able to experience that and learn from that has made me a better player.
“I’ve been raised to not fear anything, really. What it came down to was last year we were sitting undefeated and I think I tried to press a little bit. We were in the hunt for a national championship and I became tentative in the sense that I didn’t want to lose the game. I wasn’t playing like myself. To be able to go through that and learn from it really has helped me this year and help me know I can have the confidence to play well in any situation.”
Since that loss, Mariota has thrown for 2,587 yards, 23 touchdowns and zero interceptions in 10 games. In fact, the last time he threw an interception was during last season's loss to Stanford. Since then he's attempted a Pac-12-record 293 passes without a pick.
Oh, yeah. Can’t forget about the 658 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns since that Stanford loss.
“It’s mastery,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “Mastery of the quarterback position. I thought he was the best in the country last year and I think he’s the best this year. Why nobody is talking about him as the No. 1 overall pick, I don’t understand. He’s 6-5. He’s really smart. He’s unbelievably accurate. There is no wobble on his passes. Everything is precise and a quick release. Oh, by the way, he runs a 4.4. He’s that combination of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin. You’re not choosing between one or the other. You’ve got both. The big, physical imposing pocket passer and the guy that can outrun everybody. How you pass up a guy like this and have to play against him I’ll never know.
“... You put all of that into one with his maturity and the fact that this is a guy you could give a franchise to and know it’s going to be in good hands. Am I hoping he leaves, absolutely? Am I trying to talk him into leaving, maybe?”
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, who was Mariota’s offensive coordinator last year under Chip Kelly, won’t pin the loss on his quarterback, who was a redshirt freshman 10 games into his college career and playing in a tight game for the first time. In fact, Mariota didn’t really have a bad game. He was 21-of-37 for 207 yards with a touchdown and the lone interception. He also carried 12 times for 89 yards.
“It was one of those things where it was an outstanding defense from an outstanding program,” Helfrich said. “We didn’t put our best foot forward for whatever reason. He’s certainly a part of that in terms of decision-making. If he uses that to prepare better this year leading up to the game, great.”
And the hype leading up to this game has been months in the making. The winner of this game the last two years has gone on to win the Pac-12 championship. And the BCS and national championship implications speak for themselves.
Helfrich said he believes Mariota is better equipped to handle the pressure of such a big game this time around.
“I think it all starts with his approach,” Helfrich said. “Going into his second season, he has a great desire to get better. He’s the type of guy you want to be around as a coach. Not just because of his ability, but because he comes to compete every single rep of every single day. He wants to win every one-on-one. Every rep he takes, he wants to maximize it. To have your marquee guy have that mentality is contagious.
“The biggest thing he’s done is develop an overall command-and-control type of leadership from a knowledge standpoint and an execution standpoint in our offense. He’s developed a ton as a leader.”