The Oregon spring game was one of the best spring games, in recent memory, with plenty of points, and some big, exciting plays on both sides of the ball. While there are some question marks at other positions for the Ducks, the only reason most of the fans came out to Autzen on Saturday was to see quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Bryan Bennett duel it out.
If the Spring Game was the only factor that weighed into choosing the starter then the Freshman Mariota blew Bennett out of the water by a final score of 41-14. But you’ll have to look deeper to find the more pressing matter in deciding between the two quarterbacks.
There was no question about it, the better quarterback during the Spring Game was Mariota. The freshman, simply, did not look like a freshman out there; he made precise, quick passes, he made the graceful touch passes, he made the right reads in the running game, he made everything look too easy, too quickly. The mechanics, the footwork (easily his best mechanical trait as of now), the demeanor- everything about him- painted the image of a veteran quarterback just going through a practice script.
His most memorable play was an electric 82 yard touchdown run (which should have been called dead after about 15, but who cares right?) off of an effortless pitch-fake off of a triple-option play. Mariota went through his reads, then accelerated into the next level, he flipped his arm out to pitch the ball, and the defender in front of him fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Mariota was five yards behind the defender before the poor linebacker even knew what was going on. But the prettiest part of the run was what happened after that: Mariota glided into the secondary, and before you knew it he was 15 yards downfield, then 25, then he split two defensive backs, and neither defender had a chance after that.
Dixon-esque, at the very least, for Duck fans, as the breakaway speed that had only been hinted at in recruiting videos and post-practice interviews was finally revealed for everyone to see.
There are a whole bunch of other interesting subtleties to point out, and they’ll be addressed in a later breakdown, but boy, did Mariota look impressive out there.
And then there’s Bennett. From kickoff to the final whistle, it wasn’t Bryan’s day. In his previous appearances, Bennett gained confidence and rhythm when he tucked the ball away and darted up the field, but in the Spring game, he was called down when defenders just reached out an arm to grab him. Immediately Bennett looked frustrated; his footwork started to become less refined, he kept his shoulders square to the line-of-scrimmage, only looking to run instead of pass. When Mariota fell into rhythm, Bennett’s problems compounded, as Bennett watched the game swing away from his grasp.
Don’t get me wrong, Bennett had some great plays, throwing some super-accurate passes, and some great check-down passes. When Bennett calmed down, trusted his sub-par offensive line, and let the ball fly, it looked pretty. When he didn’t trust his reads and his teammates, things looked shaky out there.
Could it be that Bennett is easily flustered, and doesn’t respond well to adversity? It’s hard to tell, since Bennett didn’t face too much adversity in his previous experiences, putting away ASU and WSU, then demolishing Colorado. It would be unfair to say that Bennett can’t handle the pressure, given that small of a sample size, but its hard to discredit as well.
The biggest thing going for Bennett in this game was that he proved he can make the plays. Again, when Bennett calmed down, he was impressive. On the other hand, he looked more than a ways behind Mariota, who had a nearly perfect debut.
This game will earn Mariota a big shiny star on the Chip Kelly’s board, but the decision to be made is based on a body of work, not just on the Spring game. Either way, Oregon is set at QB.
There was one other debut worth noting, and that was of early-enrollee Arik Armstead. The 6’8" 300 pound freshman almost looks out of place, with the number nine on his jersey, but did he look dominant out there. Already man-handling guys who have been around this offensive system for three or more years, Armstead is more than ready for a prominent roll on defense. His strength and raw athleticism are already unlike anyone on the defensive side of the ball, and Armstead is still growing, adding muscle, and refining his technique. The sky is the limit for Armstead, and when he steps on the field in September, he’ll join an already deep and impressive defensive unit that from top to bottom, is one of the best in the PAC 12.
So rest assured, a fourth consecutive conference championship, and potentially more is still on the table for the Ducks of Oregon.