- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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California had done it again, just like in 2010. It mostly had solved Oregon's running game. The Bears trailed only 24-17 early in the third quarter Saturday. They had a chance, because that's what happens when you slow the Ducks' potent running game.
Or at least it used to be. Coach Jeff Tedford didn't know it at the time, but his team was about to get Mariota-ed.
That would be Ducks precocious redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota doing his thing. With the Ducks only rushing for 180 yards, Mariota became Chip Kelly's personal surgical strike team, completing 27 of 34 passes for 377 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions in a 59-17 victory, the worst defeat of Tedford's 11 years in Berkeley.
That's a staggering 230.79 passing efficiency rating. And, really, it was just mind-blowingly good QB play.
"I think he is as composed and has as full a package as any quarterback I've seen, especially a redshirt freshman," Tedford said. "He's quick with decision-making. He doesn't force balls, doesn't turn it over. He's big. He's very fast. He makes good decisions. Very accurate throwing the ball. ... We did a pretty decent job against the run game the other night but he killed us."
Tedford is not alone. Mariota's rise might be the biggest story in the Pac-12 this season. He's No. 1 in the nation in passing efficiency. He completes nearly 72 percent of his passes and has thrown for 28 touchdowns. He has five interceptions, but none in the past four games. In fact, he's tossed 17 TD passes and just one pick in the past five games. Oh, by the way, he has rushed for 516 yards and three TDs, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
Heck, he's even caught a TD pass.
In early August, the Ducks' biggest question was at quarterback. Now the biggest question is whether Mariota will beat a host of talented conference QBs, including USC senior Matt Barkley, and win first-team All-Pac-12 honors.
Or if he perhaps should get some Heisman Trophy consideration.
Mariota already has answered one big question: What if Kelly got a quarterback who was equally adept at passing and running, one who had an NFL future?
Answer: College football's best offensive coach would have his best offense. The Ducks are averaging a TD and 32 yards more per game than they did in 2010, when they played for the national title. They are rushing for 39 more yards and are far more efficient passing the ball.
Of course, Mariota and the Ducks face a big challenge Saturday. No. 13 Stanford brings to Autzen Stadium the best defense Oregon has faced this season.
Kelly's repeated praise for Mariota is "he doesn't make the same mistake twice." Now it seems he's run out of mistakes not to repeat.
Tedford and other coaches praise Mariota's poise, timing, quick release and speed. But if you've watched Mariota throughout the season, it's his efficient throwing motion and accuracy that most impress. Former Ducks QB Darron Thomas threw a school-record 66 touchdown passes in two seasons, but Mariota probably already has thrown more certifiably beautiful, did-you-see-that passes.
"It's amazing how he hits guys running in stride, running through zones," Tedford said.
It's always dangerous to extrapolate steady improvement for players -- if he's this good after 10 games, just imagine where he'll be after 20 ... or 30! One year's freshman sensation becomes next season's sophomore slumper.
But criticism of any aspect of Mariota's game are few, and there are even fewer red flags over character or makeup.
Expect a lot of defensive coordinators in the next two or three seasons to look at the schedule, see Oregon coming up and sigh with resignation: "We're about to get Mariota-ed."
3dChantel Jennings and Ted Miller