Thursday, November 1, 2012
A season of surprises for Mariota, Barkley
By Ted Miller
Marcus Mariota and the Ducks have a confident swagger heading into Saturday's matchup against Matt Barkley's Trojans.
One is Hawaiian mellow. The other is Southern California brash. One is a redshirt freshman. The other is a four-year starter. One is in the hunt for a national title playing at an extremely high level. The other is still trying to get in sync.
What's surprising is USC quarterback Matt Barkley and his team are the ones trying to find themselves, while Oregon and quarterback Marcus Mariota have been humming along, the Ducks' offense functioning as well as it has during the Chip Kelly era.
How well is that offense doing? Oregon is averaging one point every 31.2 seconds of possession, best in FBS and more than twice the rate of the average FBS team (65.9 seconds per point). The Ducks have not trailed at the half this season, and their average halftime lead is 29.3 points, which is more than seven points better than any other FBS team.
Meanwhile, USC had five turnovers, including a pair of Barkley interceptions, and 13 penalties for 117 yards in a 39-36 loss at Arizona last weekend, the Trojans' second loss of the season.
In the preseason, Oregon's visit to USC was expected to feature two unbeaten teams. It qualifies as just short of shocking that Barkley's team has two losses. Barkley, though setting records and putting up good numbers, has tossed eight interceptions through eight games this year after throwing just seven all of 2011.
"This isn't what he thought would happen," Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said. "But at the same time, [Barkley is] playing really well for the most part. It's unfortunate we are not finishing games off and playing better around him."
Of course, beating Oregon could be transformative. While the season began as national title or bust for Barkley -- that bit of "unfinished business" -- emerging from adversity and winning a Rose Bowl would be a nice consolation prize.
"Yeah, absolutely," Barkley said. "This game has a lot of implications on the season for both of these teams. We're not down, thinking our season is over by any means. We've got four big games left. We've got to make the most of those and definitely send us out on a good note."
While Barkley has had many moments of frustration, at himself and his teammates, that hasn't been the case with Mariota, who has rarely played much in the fourth quarter. Mariota admits that his second interception against Washington State bothered him, but what could have been his worst moment -- the fumble on the first possession at Arizona State -- was merely a prelude to brilliance.
"Got to get ready for the next play," he said of the bad start against the Sun Devils. "That was the biggest thing going on in my mind."
When folks talk about Mariota, it almost always comes back to his coolness.
"Real calm, cool under pressure," Colorado coach Jon Embree said. "He does a good job getting his playmakers the ball so they can make plays. He spreads it around and keeps everyone happy. He makes good decisions with the ball. He hurt us with a couple of scrambles. He's going to be a terrific player. You see each week he's getting more and more confident. As that confidence grows, his talent will continue to improve also."
Said Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, "He's a phenomenal talent. He's a big guy who can really run. He seems to have pretty good composure about him."
When you ask Mariota what part of his makeup comes from his Hawaiian heritage, he talks about "the slow-paced lifestyle," which spawned his inner calm. But what also is clear is that Mariota is archly competitive -- just like Barkley. Mellow and super-competitive don't seem like a typical combination.
"That's a good question but that's just how I am," Mariota said. "I'm so competitive. Even when I'm playing video games with my little brother, I can never let him win. I'm built this way. It works for me."
That's for sure. There's been no drop-off or course correction with Mariota as a first-year starter running the Ducks' high-powered offense. Oregon leads the FBS in offensive touchdown drives that lasted one minute or less (19) and two minutes or less (33). The Ducks are in the top three of FBS in points per game for the third straight year.
Mariota is 17th in the nation in passing efficiency, just behind Barkley, who ranks 13th.
In the preseason, this looked like a showcase game for Barkley's Heisman Trophy campaign, and the big question was how a young Ducks quarterback would respond to a big stage and big implications in front of 94,000 hostile fans at the Coliseum.
Yet now it feels like the youngster quarterback swaggers into the matchup cool and proven, while Barkley is the guy under pressure.
Barkley said he embraces that and is unafraid of the challenges of adversity.
"That's not just individual. It's rallying a team," he said. "It's something I've definitely learned over the years how to do, to make sure everyone is on the same page. It will have to be something everybody needs to be on board with, feeling that mojo we've had in the past."
He then added, "I don't think it will be a problem finding motivation to play well this weekend."