- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Whining is not part of Oregon football. Whining doesn't win the day. Whining is not forward-looking. Whining means you're concerned with outside influences and things beyond your control. None of that jibes with the carefully constructed culture around the Ducks program.
So you won't hear many folks inside the Oregon football offices spout off about the asininity of quarterback Marcus Mariota being counted out of the Heisman Trophy race just because the Ducks lost at Stanford.
The Pac-12 blog, however, is not above whining, though it prefers to see it as vociferously opposing clouded, absurd or biased thinking.
Mariota is the best quarterback in the country. We know this because the numbers say so. He fronts the nation's No. 5 team and an offense that averages 51 points and 580 yards per game.
He has passed for 25 touchdowns. He has yet to throw an interception. After throwing three touchdown passes against Utah, he extended his Pac-12 record streak of pass attempts without an interception to 353. The old mark was 216 by USC's Brad Otton from 1994-95, so Mariota hasn't merely broken the record, he has stomped it into oblivion.
He also has rushed for nine touchdowns, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. So he has accounted for 34 touchdowns despite only being involved in 27 total fourth-quarter plays this year.
Ah, Mariota's rushing. That brings up a big reason Oregon lost to Stanford, as well as another compelling part of his Heisman résumé that is being overlooked: Mariota's toughness.
He has played the past two-and-a-half games with a sprained knee. While Oregon doesn't talk about injuries, it was obvious when Mariota donned a knee brace during the second half of the win over UCLA that something was wrong. The whole nation saw that against Stanford when the Ducks were forced to shelf one of the most productive parts of their offense: The spread option.
In the two games before UCLA -- Washington and Washington State -- Mariota rushed for 155 yards. In the past two games, he has rushed for minus-16 yards. That's a negative number because he's not actually running option plays or even really scrambling, which is why the Ducks have yielded eight sacks in the past three games after surrendering eight in the first seven.
So what has Mariota done on one leg for the past three games? He has completed 68 percent of his passes with six touchdowns, averaging 256 yards passing per game.
Toughness? In spades.
"That's never been a question around here," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "That guy is a warrior."
Of course, Mariota, authentically humble and soft-spoken, doesn't have feelings one way or the other on his Heisman status.
"I have none, to be honest," he said. "Obviously that's other people's opinions and that's something I can't control. I'm just going to continue focusing on getting better and putting this team in good situations. Whatever comes with that comes with that."
That said, Mariota is not oblivious to the outside world. He did watch USC upset Stanford at a Red Robin restaurant with his family after beating Utah. The Cardinal's loss means the Ducks retook first place in the Pac-12's North Division. If they win at Arizona on Saturday and finish the season with a victory over Oregon State in the Civil War, they will return to the Pac-12 title game after a one-year hiatus. That could provide him with another marquee game, perhaps even on a healthy knee, to showcase his skills.
As for the knee, Mariota doesn't love talking about it, though he acknowledges it has been an issue.
"It is what it is," he said. "As a football player, you play through injuries. You learn to bounce back from adversity."
While he says the knee is getting better -- he might doff the knee brace in Tucson -- he does admit that it concerned his family when he first hurt it. As a likely early first-round NFL draft pick whenever he opts to leave -- this spring or next -- the redshirt sophomore does have an asset to protect.
"Obviously they do have some worry, they do have some concerns. But they support my decision no matter what," Mariota said. "They would have to pull me off the field before I wouldn't play. That's just the way I was raised. When you are part of a group, you do everything you can for that group."
That brings us to a final point about Mariota: Character. We will not waste time assailing the character of other Heisman candidates, we will only point out the utter lack of controversy surrounding Mariota. Further, he's a high-character guy without sanctimony. There is nothing efforted about him.
Helfrich, as the first-year curator of the Ducks inward looking football culture, is not going to rally around an aggressive campaign to get folks to reconsider whether the nation's most outstanding football player should win the Heisman Trophy, but he will say his piece.
"It's unfortunate how we played in the quote-unquote, marquee big game of the year, but a lot of that was not his doing," Helfrich said. "Marcus is phenomenal. All you have to do is look at the tape and watch what he has done throughout his short career. And, obviously, off the field the guy is even better."
That about sums up our effort to vociferously oppose clouded, absurd or biased thinking about who should win the Heisman.