Ducks call plays to protect him, and his arm gets Oregon past Utah
EUGENE Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota admitted Saturday that his left knee has been injured, and that a knee brace has restricted his movement.
But, "I'm not going to use it as an excuse," he said.
Instead, Mariota excelled with his arm in Saturday's 44-21 defeat of Utah. He completed 19 for 26 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns, and he extended his Oregon and Pac-12 record streak of throws without an interception to 353.
Utah sacked him three times at Autzen Stadium, but Mariota burst from the pocket for five yards on one carry in the second half and looked fast.
Offensive coordinator Scott Frost said the Ducks hope Mariota's knee will be 100 percent healthy by the next game, Saturday at Arizona, and that Mariota can play without the brace.
"I'm hoping so," Mariota said. "I've been working with the athletic training staff and 'Chief' (trainer Kevin Steil). It feels good. (Versus Utah) it felt really good, probably the best it's been since it happened. I'm looking forward to continue to get treatment, get healthy. I feel good about it."
The Ducks will go into the Arizona game leading the Pac-12 North Division. Oregon got back into the top spot Saturday night, when USC handed Stanford its second conference loss. The Trojans kicked a 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds remaining and won 20-17 at home.
Frost said Mariota could have taken off and run with the ball in the Utah game, if the Ducks had needed him to run. The Ducks' play-calling helped protect their valuable sophomore QB, however.
"Making sure we're not exposing him," Frost said. "We still wanted to protect him.
"He told me he felt a lot better going into this week."
Mariota said Utah's front seven and scheme didn't allow him many options, literally, to carry the ball. He said both the Utes and Stanford last week did a good job of taking away the keepers on the zone read-option play with defensive end containment. Frost agreed.
"They do a good job of accounting for the quarterback in their scheme, anyway," Frost said. "Not a lot of people had a lot of luck running their quarterback on designed runs (against Utah)."
Said Mariota: "They did a good job of keeping me in the pocket, did a good job of making me hand the ball off on a lot of the zone-read stuff. ... There was a couple of times I should have taken off. ... I'm definitely confident in (zone-read running). The look wasn't there. The last couple of games, the teams haven't allowed me to pull. It's not my knee."
Mariota's lack of running hindered the UO running game, which had only 65 yards on 22 carries through three quarters. The Ducks finished with 145 yards on 35 carries, a week after being held to 62 yards on 24 carries at Stanford.
"I think it affects our option," left tackle Tyler Johnstone said. "We're a speed-option team. I think Marcus is a little less comfortable ... but he can run the ball. We've seen him do it in practice. I think it's a confidence thing. He's not going to pull the ball if he doesn't feel safe doing it. It doesn't affect us overly much. We're doing fine."
Added center Hroniss Grasu: "At this point of the season, everybody's banged up. You just gotta man-up and play with it. You gotta grind. You can't make any excuses about being hurt. I thought he did a great job. Marcus was commanding the offense and being himself."
Mariota said that he played through the injury a reported MCL sprain because of his teammates.
"The guys in the locker room, they mean the world to me," he said. "It doesn't matter the type of risk that's involved. Every time you step on the field, you have the danger of ... this is the game that we play.
"I'm not going to let my knee be an excuse. You learn to play with it. That's part of it. You learn to play with adversity, learn to play through obstacles. I'm going to fight and battle till the end with (teammates). They would have to pull me off the field before I wouldn't play. I'm going to continue to do my best."
The Ducks, including coaches and Mariota and the offensive linemen, credited Utah's front seven and scheme on defense for limiting the running game.
With the Utes' trying to stop the run, Mariota took control with the passing game. And, he delivered.
"I've got a lot more confident throwing in the pocket," he said.
With the win, Mariota kept his Heisman Trophy candidacy alive, along with his interception-free season.
"All throughout the offseason, and through the course of the year, coaches have harped on me about decision-making," he said. "I always trust my eyes and trust what I see. It's not just me, it's a collaborative effort. Guys are finding holes, getting open. Depending on the look, depending on what we practice all week, I'm able to find them. It's a joint effort, but I'm just able to find guys and make sure I put the ball in the right place."