Mariota talks season's goals and pressure
Oregon Ducks quarterback Markus Mariota (8) runs the ball down field at Autzen Stadium. - Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports
Oregon Ducks offensive linesman Hamani Stevens (54) celebrates with running back Byron Marshall (9) following a touchdown against the UCLA Bruins at Autzen Stadium. -Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports
The Oregon Ducks are set to embark on a fifth consecutive season with national championship possibilities.
They are 47-6 since 2010 with one national title appearance.
Could a second be coming?
Maybe. But only if they Ducks achieve the listed five objectives.
If not, Oregon, which opens the season at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at home against South Dakota State, will eventually likely suffer a devastating loss, or two, similar to those that derailed their chances of winning it all in previuus years.
The Ducks can only avoid this and win the national championship if...
1. Quarterback Marcus Maritoa makes a December trip to New York: If the Ducks are going to contend for a national title they must receive a Heisman Trophy-worthy performance from Mariota.
Joey Harrington finished fourth in the 2001 Heisman Trophy voting. LaMichael James finished third in 2010. What did both of their teams have in common? Each contended for a national title.
James' Ducks reached the title game. Harrington's would have if not for the zany BCS system. Even still, Harrington's Ducks certainly would have been invited to a four-team playoff system, which exists now.
Dennis Dixon in 2007 had the Heisman in his hand and had the Ducks headed to the national title game before injuring his knee.
Mariota had the same things going for him last year before he and the Ducks were tripped up by Stanford and then Arizona.
See the pattern?
The Ducks will need Mariota to do what he did last year, but finish it off healthy and in New York as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
If Mariota is merely great, the Ducks don't stand a chance. He must be transcendent, like his talent.H
He also must figure out a way to finally defeat Stanford.
2. The Ducks rush for 300-plus yards per game and run well against tough opponents: Oregon must run the ball with enough potency not simply to dominate the middling teams but to also frustrate elite opponents.
The Ducks no-huddle offense is at its best when it is chewing up yards in the running game more so than in the passing game because incomplete passes slow things down just a tad.
Oregon will have three scary running backs in its backfield, junior Byron Marshall, sophomore Thomas Tyner and freshman Royce Freeman. All three present different attributes that could form most eclectic array of runners the program has ever seen. Throw in Mariota's elite running skills and you have a team that should trample all over its opponents.
The Ducks routinely dominate in the running game but last year took a step backward in overall numbers from the previous season.
The 2010 team that went 12-1 while reaching the national title rushed for 286.2 yards per game on 5.9 yards per carry. The 2012 team went 12-1 while gaining 315.2 yards per game on 6.0 yard per carry. Last year the Ducks rushed for 273.5 per game but averaged more yards per carry (7.3) than the aforementioned teams.
Much of those yards last year, however, came against weaker teams. The Ducks averaged about 340 per game in the first eight contests. Over the final five games (including losses to Stanford and Arizona) the Ducks averaged about 181 yards per game.
Granted, Mariota was banged up for much of those final five games. But that doesn't tell the entire tale.
The offensive line is now bigger and it returns four starters (left tackle Tyler Johnstone is out for the season). The backfield is loaded. Mariota is healthy.
It's time for the Ducks to exercise their will in the running game over every opponent.
3. The run defense returns to form: Oregon's defense got run over last year by Stanford, Arizona and Oregon State late in the season. Stanford and Arizona had two of the best rushing offenses in the conference, so no big shame there. But OSU?
Allowing any team to run at will dramatically lessens the impact of Oregon's offense, which can grow stale standing on the sideline for long stretches while watching potential possessions slip away over time.
The new starting defensive line trio of ends Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, and defensive tackle Alex Balducci, have the makings of becoming a super power inside. But they will need help from the linebackers, who although solid last season, did not create the same level of havoc as the 2012 group, which included Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay in the middle.
The Ducks cannot allow good teams to dominate them with their running game or eventually they will lose.
4. The defense creates more pressure on opposing quarterbacks: The Ducks need to get after the quarterback much better than they have the past two years.
Oregon led the Pac-12 with 45 sacks in 2011. The Ducks have registered just 56 since (28 in each of the past two seasons).
Pressure, some consider, is more important than sacks, because it leads to turnovers. Oregon led the nation with 25 interceptions in 2008.
But last season both the sacks and the interceptions (17) were lacking.
New defensive coordinator Don Pellum insists he is searching for new ways to blitz teams and to utilize his personal while doing so.
For Oregon to reach the national playoffs, they must get back to regularly harassing quarterbacks and creating turnovers.
5. The next Bralon Addison, or two, emerges: The loss of the team's top receiver has created a void in the passing game that might only rear its ugly head in clutch moments against good teams.
It's one things to make big plays here and there, it's another entirely to be able to deliver plays in the clutch.
Oregon has not one receiver on the roster who has proven he can do that.
Mathematically speaking, it would be next to impossible for someone not to emerge from the Ducks' group of pass catchers.
Between tight ends Pharaoh Brown, Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis, and wide receivers Keanon Lowe, Dwayne Stanford, Devon Allen, Darren Carrington, Chance Allen and B.J. Kelley, at least two or three targets figure to become household names by the end of the season.
If not, the Ducks won't be able to withstand the pressure of maintaining drives against good teams capable of slowing down the running game (at least a little) and forcing UO into unenviable third down situations that require playmakers at wide receiver and tight end.
If that happens, the Ducks are doomed to fail.
It's a lot of ifs, but each one is achievable by these Ducks.