The last time the Ducks lost a quarterback that brought them to a national championship game, Oregon had a future Heisman trophy winner waiting in the wings. This time, Oregon will have to turn on an unproven backup, or an FCS transfer with a month of practice time under his belt.
Things won't be easy right out of the gate like they were in Marcus Mariota's freshman season either. Instead of facing Arkansas State and Fresno State in Autzen Stadium, Oregon faces Vernon Adams' alma mater Eastern Washington – a decent FCS team – at home and No. 7 Michigan State in East Lansing.
Last year's contest between the Ducks and Spartans serves as a perfect example of what the Ducks will be in for with a less experienced quarterback at the helm against an experienced, talented and disciplined Michigan State defense.
Oregon's offense has produced so many big plays over the years because of its ability to make defenses focus on so many different things at once. Defensive backs have to cover speedy receivers deep downfield, stay honest on screen passes and help their interior defenders with the run. Whenever one player gets out of position, the Ducks' playcalling always seems to make defenses pay.
Many of Oregon's big plays against Michigan State last season weren't caused by Mariota directly, they were a product of balanced offense and good play calling.
After slashing the Spartan defense for five yards on first down with an inside zone run, Michigan State countered with a seven man blitz. The Ducks stayed one step ahead and went to a play action vertical concept. Oregon picked up the blitz nicely and Mariota calmly put the ball right on the money. Any quarterback worthy of a scholarship at Oregon should be able to make that throw.
In the third quarter, Oregon repeated bubble and tunnel screen action on nearly every play in a drive. Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost watched the Spartan safeties creep further towards the screens every time, then finally called a fake screen play for another wide open deep ball.
While the Ducks were able to score off of good play calling, Mariota's escapability and play making ability bailed Oregon out of multiple bad situations throughout the contest. It's safe to say that without his improvisation, the Ducks would have been lucky to stay in the ballgame.
Before the wide open fake screen pass, Mariota converted a crucial third down that wound up on his Heisman highlight reel.
But it was more than just one third down. Mariota used his feet to convert here:
And used his underrated pocket presence to turn a bad situation into a favorable one.