Quarterback's fate often plays key role for UO at Tucson

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Freshman Thomas Tyner and the Oregon Ducks running game have been limited the past two outings by Stanford and Utah.So, will history repeat itself for the Oregon quarterback in the teeming November environment of Arizona Stadium?

A couple of parallels of note, as the Ducks prepare to play Arizona, 12:30 p.m. Saturday:

• Remember in November 2007, Dennis Dixon wore a brace on his knee and sprinted straight ahead for an early touchdown against the Wildcats? A short time later, Dixon tried to make some cuts in the backfield and suffered a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear, ending a Heisman Trophy-worthy season.

• Remember in November 2009, Jeremiah Masoli rallied the Ducks to a late touchdown in regulation and then orchestrated a double-overtime victory against the Wildcats? The win kept Oregon’s Rose Bowl hopes alive, and they became reality the next week with a victory against Oregon State — sending the Ducks to play Ohio State in Pasadena.

Does Marcus Mariota, he of the mysterious left knee injury and brace, suffer the same fate as Dixon, ending a Heisman Trophy-worthy season?

Or, does he lead the Ducks past the Wildcats, keeping the 2013 team’s Rose Bowl hopes and a potential date in Pasadena with Ohio State alive?

Well, first of all, it remains to be seen whether Mariota continues to wear the brace. Against Stanford and Utah, he looked really fast running straight ahead, but refused — perhaps on coaches’ orders and plan — to make moves and burst out of the pocket.

Second of all, Mariota continues to play with the real goal of making the Rose Bowl, after USC’s upset of Stanford.

Beat Arizona and Oregon State and the Ducks win the Pac-12 North Division and play the South winner for the conference championship and an expected trip to the Rose Bowl — which would be its fifth consecutive BCS game.

“Control what you can control,” Mariota says. “We control our own destiny. We’ll take it one game at a time, and see where we’re at. ... We can’t overlook things, look past Arizona.”

• Mariota’s two-year Oregon career has been full of highlights, but one could be rising above all the others: The super sophomore has thrown 353 consecutive passes without an interception. If he averages 23 attempts in four potential remaining games and does not throw a pick, he would pass Louisiana Tech’s Colby Cameron (444, 2011-12) for the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision record.

Russell Wilson, who played for Wisconsin against the Ducks in the January 2012 Rose Bowl, set the previous record of 379 in 2008-09 while at North Carolina State. Wilson now stars for the Seattle Seahawks.

Jimmy Blanchard of Portland State still holds the Football Championship Subdivision record of 342 consecutive passes without an interception, set in 1999.

Coach Mark Helfrich, who sarcastically pointed out after an earlier game that Mariota would eventually throw the ball to the other team, says Mariota doesn’t deserve all the credit for the streak.

“It’s an 11-man job,” he says. “His skill set of decision-making and timing has to be coupled with guys in the right spot at the right time.”

Mariota, who has fumbled several times this season, has 25 touchdown passes with zero picks. The Ducks’ QBs threw six interceptions in 2001, when Joey Harrington played quarterback, the fewest on record dating to 1952. Harrington had five of them. Backups Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues each have thrown an interception.

Mariota said: “All throughout the offseason, and through the course of the year, coaches have harped on me about decision-making. 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.”

• The Ducks struggled to run the ball against Stanford and Utah — 24 carries for 62 against the Cardinal, 10 first-half yards (and 145 total) against the Utes.

The troubles can be traced to Mariota’s bum knee and lack of running the option and good defensive fronts working against Oregon’s work-in-progress offensive line.

De’Anthony Thomas, Byron Marshall and Thomas Tyner simply haven’t found many holes, and the zone-read option with Mariota hasn’t been used for a while.

But, take note: Two years ago at Arizona Stadium, LaMichael James set the Oregon rushing record with 288 yards (since broken by Kenjon Barner). Last year, the Ducks ran for 225 yards as a team on 53 carries against Arizona. This year, the Wildcats give up 163 yards rushing per game (4.1 per carry).

“We need to coach it better,” Helfrich says, of the running game. “We need to coach our execution better.”

• Oregon’s defense has long been overshadowed by the team’s prolific offense, which, if the pace continues, would set school records in scoring (50.9 points per game) and offense (580.2 yards).

The defense? It’s giving up 18.2 points per game, which would be the lowest since 1980 (17.5). It’s the No. 8-ranked scoring defense in the country. And, the Ducks have given up only 74 second-half points; in UO’s only loss, the Ducks allowed just three second-half field goals at Stanford.

All the while, the Ducks’ defenders are playing more plays (80.3 average in 10 games) than any previous defenses since Chip Kelly influenced the program with an offensive fast pace, starting in 2007. Nine other FBS teams have faced more plays, led by Texas Tech (856). Oregon ranks 121 of 123 FBS teams in time of possession (25:25).

Oregon safety Brian Jackson says, “I think it’s some of the best football we’ve played” as a unit in his five years with the squad. “It’s amazing we’ve been able to do so much,” Jackson says. “We play a lot of football. I feel like we’re on the field the whole game. That’s not really a complaint. We like to play.”

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