- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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The metaphor Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason used repeatedly was "deep water." He wanted his Cardinal defense to somehow, some way, pull Oregon into the fourth quarter with the game in doubt. Then, his reasoning went, we'd all see how well the Ducks can swim when they are in unfamiliar waters.
And it worked. Playing in their only meaningful fourth quarter over the past 18 games, the Ducks lost to Stanford 17-14 on Nov. 17, 2012, knocking them out of the national title game.
It's almost amusing that a potential weak spot in Oregon's variegated and seemingly impervious armor exists only because of the Ducks' consistent excellence on both sides of the ball: They have been so dominant that we've rarely seen them play a meaningful fourth quarter. You're darn near more likely to have a ivory-billed woodpecker land on your nose than see an Oregon Duck in a tense fourth quarter.
Oregon's average margin of victory in 2012 was just short of 28 points. This year, it's 47.4 points. Only five teams score more than 47.4 points per game.
And Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota is a microcosm of the issue. Just look at the stats. Mariota has thrown only 24 passes in the fourth quarter over the past 18 games and none of those passes were thrown this season.
Mariota's limited fourth-quarter numbers are good -- 18-of-24 for 174 yards with a touchdown and an interception -- but his lone subpar game as the Ducks starter was against the Cardinal, when his ESPN.com Total Quarterback Rating was 44.9, with 50 being average. Mariota's QBR so far this season in 96.7, which ranks second in the nation.
But again, it includes nothing from a tight fourth quarter.
So, the question for Mariota and the Ducks is what happens when they next get dragged into deep water? And might that happen Saturday when the No. 2 Ducks visit their bestest buddies from Seattle, the 16th-ranked Washington Huskies?
Mariota, not exactly a demonstrative, worrywart sort of guy, didn't seem too concerned.
"Obviously it's not the same as a game-time situation, but throughout my career we've gone through practice scenarios, what we need to do if we are down six or down four, three," he said. "We try to make us feel uncomfortable. Whatever situation we end up being in, I think the team is prepared and is confident in our ability to be successful in those situations."
Coach Mark Helfrich echoed Mariota's sentiments, with his own catchphrase being making sure his players were "comfortable being uncomfortable."
What's potentially interesting is that if Mariota and Oregon were less dominant, it might provide Mariota better material for his Heisman resume. "Heisman moments," such as Johnny Manziel's clutch play in last year's win over Alabama or Johnny Rodgers' punt return against Oklahoma or Doug Flutie's Hail Mary against Miami, often come when the game is on the line.
The bronze trophy isn't completely about excellence. There's also an element of drama to it -- "wow" points on video that define a player and give voters something to gawk at. Mariota and the Ducks' season, at least thus far, has been devoid of drama.
Cracked Helfrich: "I'm good if that happens throughout the year."
Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian laughed at that notion too, saying he'd be glad to be up 40 points in the fourth quarter on a regular basis. The Huskies haven't faced much fourth-quarter drama this year either -- they've outscored foes 37-7 in the fourth -- at least until they fell short last weekend at Stanford.
Sarkisian sees little on film to suggest Mariota would struggle under pressure. In fact, he sees a more mature quarterback than the one who accounted for 3,429 total yards and 38 scores as a redshirt freshman in 2012.
"The little things are showing up even more," Sarkisian said. "Obviously, the ability to create big plays is such a unique aspect to their offense. It all starts with Marcus."
A road game against a ranked team that kicks off at 4 p.m. ET will give Mariota a big stage to show the nation he's Heisman worthy. Yet that isn't a notion that generates a lot of juice for Mariota.
"To me, that is outside noise," Mariota said of Heisman talk. "I've said that so many times and people continue to ask me, of course. But for me, I'm looking to just continue winning games. Whatever comes with that comes with that. The Heisman Trophy, to me, is something that's about a team effort."
Mariota and the Ducks' efforts thus far have ended games before the fourth quarter. He and his fellow starters have been enjoying orange slices on the sidelines while their backups finish things up.
But the last time Mariota and the Ducks were pulled into "deep waters," they faltered. That's at least a basis for pregame intrigue as Oregon faces its toughest test yet this season.