Marcus Mariota, the prototypical 21st-century quarterback, took an old-fashioned approach to become Oregon’s first Heisman Trophy winner.
The Ducks’ understated star won the Heisman on Saturday night going away, capping a three-year climb to college football’s most prestigious individual award.
“I’m humbled to be standing here today,” Mariota said, reading an acceptance speech he had a hard time getting through without choking up.
A pinpoint passer with wide-receiver speed, Mariota came into his junior season as the favorite to win the 80th Heisman and delivered a performance that turned the presentation ceremony at a theater in Times Square into a foregone conclusion.
Mariota received twice as many points as second-place finisher Melvin Gordon, the record-breaking running back from Wisconsin. The other finalist, Alabama receiver Amari Cooper, was third.
Mariota received the second-highest percentage of possible points (90.92) in Heisman history, behind only Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, who had 91.63 in 2006. Southern California tailback Reggie Bush received 91.77 percent of possible points in 2005, but his victory was later vacated for violating NCAA rules.
The first Hawaii native to win the Heisman has accounted for a Pac-12-record 53 touchdowns (38 passing, 14 rushing and one receiving) while directing the Ducks’ warp-speed spread offense. He also led Oregon to a spot in the first College Football Playoff.
It will be a matchup of Heisman-winning quarterbacks in the Rose Bowl semifinal Jan. 1 with Mariota and the second-seeded Ducks facing Florida State and Jameis Winston.
Mariota has been making a whirlwind tour up the East Coast collecting trophies. First stop, Orlando, Florida, on Thursday, to pick up an armful of hardware. Next stop, Baltimore for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. He took a train to New York on Saturday morning. It was his first time on a train and his first time in the Big Apple.
“It’s breathtaking, really,” he said of the city hours before being announced as the winner. “I’ve never been around so many skyscrapers and lights and people. It’s definitely been a different feel, but it’s cool.”
In an era when so many Heisman winners seemingly come from out of nowhere — the last two were the first freshmen winners — Mariota’s rise was slow and steady.
Three of the last four Heisman winners were in their first seasons as starters, including Cam Newton, who won the award in his only season at Auburn after transferring from a junior college. Before Newton, three straight sophomores won the award (Tim Tebow of Florida, Sam Bradford of Oklahoma and Mark Ingram of Alabama). Tebow was the first sophomore winner.
Like Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Winston, the previous two winners, Mariota started as a redshirt freshman. It didn’t take long for him to establish himself as a star, but unlike Johnny Football and Famous Jameis, Mariota wasn’t the face of college football in his first season.
In his second season he was even better, putting up numbers that rivaled those of Heisman finalist quarterbacks Winston, Manziel, AJ McCarron and Jordan Lynch, but when it came time to vote for the Heisman, Mariota was forgotten. He didn’t even finish in the top 10 in 2013.
This season Mariota was the man to beat from the start and nobody could touch him. Except for a blip in early October, when the Ducks lost to Arizona, Mariota exceeded the hype.
He leads the nation in passer rating (186.2), is fifth in total offense (342.5 yards per game) and has led the Ducks to a Pac-12 title with a chance to play for their first national championship.
Of course, patience and poise have defined Mariota’s career. He didn’t start for his high school team until he was a senior — then led Saint Louis in Honolulu to a state title.
A quiet leader with a nice-guy reputation, Mariota brought no off-field baggage to this Heisman ceremony. After a season beset by off-field troubles, including a school hearing into sexual assault allegations, Winston wasn’t a finalist this time around.
Mariota has another year of eligibility, but he’s been in Eugene, Oregon, for four years and is on target to graduate soon. He has yet to declare for the NFL draft, but he has likely played his last home game at Autzen Stadium.
Mariota passes the NFL eye test, too. He could have been a high draft pick last year, and his stock has only gone up this season.
Oregon’s only Heisman finalists before Mariota were quarterback Joey Harrington in 2001 and running back LaMichael James in 2010. For Harrington, Oregon, with Nike’s help, put up a billboard in Times Square to promote their Heisman candidate.
Oregon didn’t need a billboard to get the word out about Mariota. His play provided all the publicity he needed.