At the University of Nike on Saturday in overtime on national TV in primetime, the peak of this multi-billion-dollar college football business was coming down on a freshman quarterback, Marcus Mariota. He turned 19 a few weeks ago.
He botched it, and then the field-goal kicker missed, too, allowing Stanford to beat No. 2 Oregon 17-14. On a night when BCS No. 1 Kansas State was exposed, crushed at lowly Baylor, the Oregon loss completely turned college football upside down.
“I learned a lot,’’ Mariota said. “This was the first overtime I’ve ever played in.’’
His first? In this situation? He just seemed so young, sitting there in a postgame news conference, explaining how he had missed a call on third down in overtime and thrown to the wrong spot in the end zone.
“He was running one way,’’ Mariota said simply, “and I was throwing the other. Just a miscommunication. That’s on me.’’
He also had run frantically on the first two downs and gotten nowhere.
I came to the game thinking about Mariota, figuring Oregon would win and wondering why no one puts him in the race for the Heisman Trophy.
He has been great. But at some point, reality sets in.
You can’t really call it choking. That’s too simple, though the pressure on the whole program was obvious. Oregon coach Chip Kelly was acting more snippy than usual during the week, strangely getting upset with a reporter for writing that Kelly was considering trying an offensive player on defense.
Was that panic? A week earlier, desperate over the injuries to his defensive line, Kelly had burned a redshirt year on freshman Alex Balducci, basically killing a year of his eligibility with a just a few games to go.
The truth is, the night, including Kansas State’s loss, just showed how hard it is to win all the way through a college football season. Two weeks ago, the talk was that Alabama would get to the title game undefeated, and then Oregon, Kansas State and Notre Dame would all go undefeated, too, with two of them being left out.
Then last week, Alabama lost, and that was it for Alabama. That was it for the entire SEC.
Now, all based on Saturday’s games, the SEC winner is almost sure to get into the national championship game. That probably means Alabama against Notre Dame, which is back as the only bowl-eligible undefeated team.
Linebacker Manti Te’o is now the strong favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, with only Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel as competition.
When he woke up Saturday morning, Johnny QB wasn’t even in the running.
It could all change again, by the way. The BCS will be a complete mess again if Notre Dame loses to USC this coming Saturday, and that could end up with Oregon still getting to the title game.
Every coach will say (read: lie) that he doesn’t think about all of that stuff. But that’s not possible. It’s also hard to believe that Kansas State and Oregon just coincidentally lost on the same week they had moved into position for the national championship game.
At some point, did all of that figuring become too much?
“We try not to think of those things, but it still hurts,’’ Mariota said. “We don’t live in a bubble. But this doesn’t define a season.’’
No, it defines college football. The thrill of it. The size of it.
You put it all together: The big business, the pressure, just the difficulty of seeing different types of teams each week, and it shouldn’t be a shock what happened to Oregon.
Stanford pounded on the Ducks, tore up the rhythm of their superfast offense and slowed it down a step. On offense, Stanford kept pounding, too. Tailback Stepfan Taylor plowed away for 161 yards.
The style of play was perfect for beating Oregon. The right team won.
So this isn’t to put the blame on Mariota. He threw for 207 yards and a touchdown. He was fine, and is probably going to be great someday.
I guess it was seeing him after the game, not crushed or demoralized, but just looking like a kid, playing down the road from Nike headquarters in such a big-dollar moment. We have grown to see amazing things from young players in all sports, but this was still a big ask for a freshman quarterback.
That’s not to say it’s an unfair situation. It’s just the reality.
If anything, Kelly, a grown man, might be worth criticizing, possibly adding pressure to his team. But this was just mostly about the toughness of Stanford’s defense.
Kelly told the team afterward that “things aren’t always going to go your way. That’s life.’’
But things could still work out. If Notre Dame loses to USC, then who will play the SEC winner for the title? Probably not Kansas State, after such a big beating. Not the SEC title game loser. Not Notre Dame.
Maybe Florida. But if Notre Dame loses, and UCLA beats Stanford, then Oregon might still get in with a win over Oregon State, and then over UCLA in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
This is one of the most exciting finishes to a season in years. You can see why ESPN has, according to Sports Business Journal, offered $7.2 billion for the national championship playoffs for 12 years.
If Oregon still manages to get to the title game, this machine will come down even harder on Mariota. He might be OK, though. He is incredibly talented.
And now he even knows what overtime feels like, too.