Start with a quarterback in trouble: Last Saturday, late in the third quarter, a young man named Marcus Mariota faced a 3rd-and-10 in his own territory, his protection breaking down, his team trailing by nine points and on the verge of fading into irrelevance. The opposing coach, Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio, so assumed that the play was over that he muttered to himself, “He’s sacked.”
But this one play was an exemplar of why college football – the actual, on-field product of college football, if not the swirling controversies and legal disputes surrounding it – has never been more fascinating to watch than it is right now.
Because Mariota, the Oregon quarterback, would not be sacked; he ducked one onrushing Michigan State defender and slipped through the grasp of a second defender and then shucked off a third. And there he was, stumbling to the left side of the field, trying desperately to keep his balance, and at that moment, just when it appeared he might attempt to run for a first down – and maybe even should have run for the first down – Mariota looked up, saw running back Royce Freeman, and flipped the ball in his direction.
“I was looking for him to run it,” Freeman told reporters. “I was going to block for him.”
Instead, Freeman gathered in the flip and pushed ahead. The gain was 17 yards. Five plays later, Mariota threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to a world-class hurdler and wide receiver named Devon Allen, and soon after that, Mariota threw another touchdown pass to help Oregon regain the lead, and soon after that, Oregon pulled away to earn one of the first signature victories of the college football season, 46-27 over a physical Michigan State squad. At least for one day, all those questions about the inherent toughness of Oregon’s blur of a spread offense seemed entirely irrelevant; at least for one day, the notion of a quarterback as something far different than the quarterbacks of yore seemed to manifest itself on a single key play.
Mariota, of course, is not the first quarterback to embody this evolution, just as Oregon is not the only team to embrace a progressive offense. One of the central theories behind nearly all the varied concepts of the spread offense (and especially rush-heavy spreads like Oregon’s) as opposed to a more traditional pro-style offense like Michigan State’s, is that for years offenses were essentially playing 10-on-11, since the plodding, drop-back quarterback we all grew up with was never a threat to run the football. Quarterbacks like Mariota, and the dozens who came before him, turn that idea on its head. They give the offense the numerical (and psychological) advantage.
What makes Mariota perhaps the best quarterback in the country (along with Florida State’s Jameis Winston, who’s like a super-sized version of Mariota) is that he seems equally comfortable running and throwing the football – that whatever the play requires, he appears unruffled and unfazed and entirely willing to adjust, occasionally on the fly. He throws with the form of a quarterback, and he runs with the instincts of a running back. There have been others similar to him, but on a play like the one he made Saturday, on a play that teetered several times between run and pass, he does come across like a fresh iteration of the genus of modern signal-caller.
For the moment, that play, and that victory – over a Michigan State team that acquitted itself quite well on the road, and is clearly the favorite to win an increasingly disastrous Big Ten Conference – almost certainly make Mariota the front-runner to win the Heisman Trophy. He is, by all accounts, an overwhelmingly modest young man with none of the off-field baggage of Winston; he grew up in Hawaii, and the smoothness of his game feels like a reflection of his home state’s ethos (as opposed to, say, Winston’s authoritative presence or Johnny Manziel’s herky-jerky brilliance). He is reluctant to buy into his own publicity, but if Oregon keeps winning, and the Ducks keep steadily advancing toward the four-team College Football Playoff, then he won’t be able to hide in Eugene for much longer: If all goes well, he may eventually be the top pick in next year’s NFL Draft, where some coach will no doubt attempt to rein in his style in order to tailor it to the more bruising and less improvisatory necessities of the professional game.
All of the above remains a big if: Watching USC’s physical tussle with Stanford earlier on Saturday (the Trojans won 13-10), it seemed clear that the Pac-12 is slowly encroaching on the SEC’s mantle as the best college football conference in the country. Oregon will struggle again this year, and they may struggle several times, and they’ll need Mariota to make decisions on the fly again. The Ducks are bigger and stronger (they largely shut down Michigan State’s run game in the second half) and faster and more talented than they’ve ever been since overhauling their program some two decades ago, but in the end, the spread offense has put the fate of most college football teams in the hands of their quarterback. He can run, or he can throw, and on occasion, when the moment requires it, Marcus Mariota can do both at the same time.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb