Each week of the college football season NCAA.com took a look at the most impressive individual performance by potential Heisman candidates. Who that was fluctuated, but as the season came to an end, one player emerged above and beyond the rest. That man: Marcus Mariota.
Question: When you hear the phrase “Heisman quarterback,” what does this guy look like to you? What kind of person is he? What can he do on the football field?
How does this guy sound: Quarterback with a deadly accurate arm and equally dangerous feet, who leads the nation in total offense with 4,452 yards. Has a consistency and mistake-free aspect to his play that each game’s outcome feels inevitable in victory. A genuine leader who eschews the spotlight, redirecting to his teammates or coaches or family any chance he gets.
What about him? Is he a Heisman? Because, really, who you’d be describing is Marcus Mariota.
It’s popular now to reflect on the beginning of the season and say he was always the Heisman frontrunner, that it was always his to lose. But that’s wishful and wistful memory talking.
The truth is we all were waiting to see if Mariota could finally get past his roadblocks, the hurdles perpetually waiting for him each season. Because Mariota seemed to always have that one game, typically against Stanford, when nothing seemed to go right and Oregon needed him to remain that steady steed of remarkable productivity. He couldn’t do it.
This season looked and felt like it would be different. Mariota spoke more confidently, had dulled the rough edges of his already pristine game into something somehow more relentless. In only the second game of the season against Michigan State, Mariota shined, throwing at will against ole’ Sparty. He had a ‘moment,’ a Heisman moment, creating something from nothing with a scramble that turned the game.
It seemed everything, instead of just most things, was going right for Mariota. Then, it happened. Again. Oregon lost to Arizona at home on a dark, cloudless Thursday night, a game the Ducks were quite favored before kickoff. Worse was that Mariota was the culprit yet again, getting stripped on a potential game-tying drive and effectively losing the game. It seemed that formula of shortcomings was repeating itself yet again.
With that, the door creaked open for other guys to snatch the crown from Mariota. The crown that seemed it would finally be his appeared destined for others as Dak Prescott lifted Mississippi State to an unprecedented No. 1 ranking and Melvin Gordon ran toward, and through, history.
But as we were distracted by the others’ pyritic glare, Mariota doubled down on his efforts, not letting one loss consume him and his team. From then on the Ducks were never seriously contested again, smashing UCLA, cleaning out rival Stanford, manhandling Utah. And at the helm, ever the emblem of efficiency and consistency, was Mariota.
And as he marched Oregon through the regular season, all those other guys kind of just fell away. Prescott’s patina tarnished, Gordon became history instead of making it and Cooper couldn’t do enough to catch up. And while they tumbled, Mariota continued to rise. In the Pac-12 championship, Oregon exacted its revenge against Arizona, and Mariota got the monkey off his back or exorcised his demons or whichever banal heroic convention you want to use. Mariota did it.
It may not have seemed like Mariota was having those ‘moments’ the other guys were along the way, but here’s the thing: ‘Heisman moments’ derive from absurd spikes in play from a star athlete. When they play so out of their minds and outside the realm of human expectation, that they leave us with our jaws on the floor.
Mariota never did that because he never had to; it’s not his game. Whenever he’s on the field, he’s the master controller, dictating each variable and outcome of a given play. He transforms himself into a constant, pushing and prodding and poking at any defense until they give away their weakness.
In other words, Mariota showed us everything he had. We saw an athlete evolve quarterback play with a mixture of sharp wit and athleticism we haven’t quite seen before and may not see again. We saw the clear-cut best quarterback in the country stabilize his team with a lethal efficiency when it needed him most, unlike in seasons past. Most of all, we saw Mariota fulfill every inch of potential he has and then some, leading Oregon to the inaugural College Football Playoffs, and keeping promises we didn’t even know he had made.
And that’s why, with all Marcus Mariota has done, the college football world had no choice but to hand him the Heisman.
• Heisman archives