Will last QB standing win?
EUGENE — It’s hard to produce a Heisman Trophy moment on your back.
The Pac-12’s top two preseason candidates for college football’s most prestigious award, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and UCLA’s Brett Hundley, are on the verge of having their Heisman campaigns and national championship dreams sacked.
Since losing left tackle Jake Fisher to injury in the final nonconference tune-up against Wyoming, Mariota has been sacked 12 times in two conference games. He was sacked five times during the Ducks’ 31-24 loss to Arizona.
UCLA ranks 123rd out of 125 FBS teams in sacks allowed this season. Hundley was sacked 10 times during the Bruins’ 30-28 loss to Utah.
“That’s usually a pretty good indicator of success is keeping your guy in rhythm, upright and confident,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “I think both quarterbacks have really done a nice job of staying confident and staying in rhythm throughout these times … you see the stats for these guys, they’ve taken too many shots for their respective teams.”
When No. 12 Oregon (4-1, 1-1) faces No. 18 UCLA (4-1, 1-1) on Saturday at the Rose Bowl (12:30 p.m., FOX), there’s a good chance the quarterback with the cleaner uniform at the end of the game will be the one wearing a winning smile.
Steve Greatwood believes his offensive line, which has been recast with true freshman Tyrell Crosby at left tackle and walk-on Matt Pierson at right tackle, will be able to safeguard Mariota better this week.
“I still feel confident in our ability to move the ball and protect Marcus. As long as I maintain that, I think they will to. We’ll continue to make strides,” Greatwood said. “All I can do is believe in the kids I have out there, which I do, and encourage them to play as hard as they can. Because I tell you what, as soon as doubt starts to creep into their minds, then we’re really in for a long evening.”
Oregon lost its experienced starter at left tackle, Tyler Johnstone, to a torn ACL during fall camp. Andre Yruretagoyena, who started at right tackle after Fisher switched sides to fill Johnstone’s spot, has been out with a lower leg injury since the Michigan State game.
After getting sacked five times in the first half at Washington State, Mariota was able to create some extra time by rolling out of the pocket. He finished off the 38-31 road win 21-for-25 passing for 329 yards and five touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Scott Frost said Mariota was not 100 percent against Arizona. The normally dazzling dual-threat quarterback rushed for one yard on nine attempts, lost two fumbles and threw for 276 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’m good. I’m good,” Mariota said of his health after Tuesday’s practice. “Typical football stuff. You just kind of get banged up through the years and you just have to fight through it.”
Oregon’s latest depth chart lists Crosby “or” Fisher at left tackle, and Pierson “or” Crosby at right tackle.
“We’re just waiting to see. I’m at the mercy of the doctors and trainers and Mother Nature to heal up injuries,” Greatwood said when asked about the possibility of getting injured players healthy enough to return.
Hundley, whose offensive line is healthy and more experienced than last season, took some of the blame for his sacks, stating that he needs to make quicker decisions with the ball.
Like Mariota, Hundley decided to return for his redshirt junior season instead of entering the NFL draft as a possible first-round prospect.
“We have similar traits,” Hundley told the Associated Press. “(Mariota) is a fast quarterback. He is very efficient in his offense. He can throw the ball around and runs when he needs to.”
Hundley, who watched backup Jerry Neuheisel guide the Bruins to a win over Texas after an elbow injury, has completed 72.8 percent of his passes for 1,310 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. Mariota has completed 71.1 percent of his passes for 1,411 yards and 15 touchdowns with no interceptions.
The quarterback who is able to stand tall on Saturday will remain in the Heisman race by getting his team back in the College Football Playoff picture.
“Marcus is a strong guy,” Oregon left guard Hamani Stevens said. “There was a lot of emotion after the (Arizona) game on Thursday. For the most part he’s been doing well lifting other guys up.”