- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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EUGENE, Ore. -- Tennessee led 7-0, and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was just 2-for-8 throwing the ball. Uh-oh. Ducks are in trouble, and Mariota's early-season accuracy issues might be a long-term problem.
Then ... KABOOM! Oregon went all Oregon on the Volunteers because Mariota went all Mariota.
The Ducks scored the next 59 points and rolled to an easy 59-14 victory because Mariota completely befuddled the Vols defense, completing 23 of 33 throws for a career-high 456 yards with four touchdowns. He also rushed for a score.
Those sorts of numbers supporting the nation's No. 2 team clearly put the "H-word" in play. As in Heisman Trophy. Obviously, Mariota has to be excited about such talk.
"Not really," he said. "That's individual accolades, and that's something we don't talk about around here. That's outside noise to me."
That could sound like canned talk, PR-smart, faux humility. Perhaps, but in that case, Mariota would need to be a heck of an actor, because his humility seems like an authentic response, his standard gear. Oregon folks who repeatedly praise it, in fact, sometimes want Mariota to adopt a little bit more swagger as the guy fronting the nation's best offense.
Oregon had 658 yards through three quarters, and the bench was cleared with four minutes remaining in the third. That's the most an SEC team has allowed through three quarters over the past 10 seasons. The Vols’ 45-point margin of defeat was their worst since 1910, a 48-0 loss to Mississippi A&M.
“I think they are very deserving of where they’re ranked," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "I think they’re very well deserving of all the accolades that they’ve received. They have tremendous, tremendous skill. Anytime you have a quarterback who can throw the ball and run the football, you’re always a gap short, you’re always a man short."
While the Ducks defense deserves more than just a tip of the cap, as it also was in complete control, Mariota is rapidly evolving into a super-elite player, an All-American and Heisman candidate and potentially the best quarterback in program history.
"Marcus is a stud," first-year head coach Mark Helfrich said. "I wouldn't trade that guy for anything."
The truth is the accuracy concerns were probably a bit overblown (who ... me?). While Mariota was completing just over 50 percent of his throws over the first two games, the bigger issue was drops. They were an issue during the start against the Vols, but once Mariota and his receivers synced up, the scoreboard spun like a Vegas slot machine.
"I guess we can complete a pass again," Helfrich quipped. "I haven't even looked at the numbers."
The numbers Helfrich would look at are glowing: the first 400-yard passing game for a Ducks QB since Kellen Clemens in 2005 and the third-most in school history. "I'll take that," Helfrich said.
Mariota had 350 yards passing at the break, so he easily could have pushed into ludicrous territory if the Vols had kept things closer. He also extended his string of throwing at least one touchdown pass to 16 games, which is third-best among active quarterbacks.
Of course, it wasn't just Mariota. The Ducks rushed for 216 yards -- pedestrian by their standards -- and two players eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark. Josh Huff had six catches for 125 yards, including a 54-yard TD, and true freshman tight end Johnny Mundt hauled in five passes for 121 yards.
Mundt? He got so many touches because starter Colt Lyerla, who's battled the dropsies, did not play. Asked after the game why Lyerla was held out, Helfrich said, "Circumstances." He then assumed his best Chip Kelly stance when he assured the media that was a specific, one-word description.
While Mariota and Oregon's explosiveness will stock the highlight reel from this game, it's worth noting that Oregon owned both lines of scrimmage against an SEC team, one that was supposed to have one of the nation's best offensive lines.
“I thought Oregon did a great job at the line of scrimmage," Jones said. "We pride ourselves on being a physical, blue-collar football team and I thought they won the line of scrimmage battle, and that can’t happen.”
The preseason question was how would Oregon look under Helfrich after Kelly bolted for the NFL? After a 3-0 start where the Ducks outscored opponents 184-27, the answer appears to be, "Exactly like they did under Kelly."
While all that might be true, it’s Mariota who has taken a step forward. That should worry the teams on the Ducks schedule.
Oh, and some not on the schedule as of yet -- as it was the Oregon fans chanting, when this contest was no longer in doubt, "We want Bama!"