STANFORD, Calif. — Almost every week, Stanford coach David Shaw delegates a backup quarterback to the scout team in practice who can best simulate the upcoming opponent.
Not this week.
Shaw’s search for somebody on the roster to mimic Marcus Mariota and Oregon’s up-tempo offense was deemed a lost cause. There’s nobody who could even come close.
Slowing down Mariota will be the top priority when sixth-ranked Stanford (7-1, 5-1) plays host to No. 2 Oregon (8-0, 5-0) on Thursday night in a matchup of the winners of the past four Pac-12 championships.
In 21 starts, the Heisman Trophy hopeful has put up video-game like numbers against nearly every team he’s faced. That is, except for Stanford.
The Cardinal handed Mariota his only loss last season, 17-14 in overtime in Eugene. Stanford’s victory ended Oregon’s three-year run as conference champion – not to mention Mariota’s chances for college football’s most prestigious award.
Duplicating that performance might be even tougher. Mariota has thrown for 2,281 yards and 20 touchdowns and run for 587 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He’s completing 64 percent of his passes and, perhaps most impressively, has not thrown an interception.
Stanford has forced a turnover in 33 straight games, the second-longest streak in the country. Being the first team to make Mariota throw an interception this season is a challenge Stanford knows will be difficult, but it’s also one it will embrace.
“I thought last year he was the best quarterback in the nation, and I feel the same way this year,” Shaw said. “I don’t care about stats. Stats don’t mean anything. You watch the film, you see a kid that makes every throw. Every throw is accurate. Twenty touchdowns and no interceptions? Every ball is perfect, every ball is in stride, every ball there’s no wobble on it. Everything’s pretty.
“As a former receiver, you always appreciate that, a guy that just throws a pretty ball. And then when nobody’s open, he just takes off and outruns everybody. You’re designing a quarterback, that’s what you want.”
The secret to Stanford’s success against Mariota remains somewhat of a mystery.
The Cardinal credit a physical, gap-plugging 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who emphasizes the most basic fundamentals: tackling and discipline. In the two games since losing at Utah, Stanford has shut down Brett Hundley and UCLA (10 points) and Sean Mannion and Oregon State (12 points) in victories.
Now they hope to make it three in a row with Mariota up next.
“He’s a great player. He’s going to make some plays. But we can’t just let him take the ball, read what we’re doing,” said linebacker A.J. Tarpley, who intercepted a pass from Mariota last season. “We want to try and mix it up a little bit, whether that’s attacking him, try to show something that looks like something but it’s actually something else. We’ll mix it up. We don’t want them to get in their rhythm. Because once they do that, you can’t stop them.”
In the first 10 games before last season’s meeting, the Ducks seemed unstoppable under Mariota. Oregon led the Football Bowl Subdivision with 54.8 points per game and never scored fewer than 42 points.
Mariota completed 21 of 37 passes for 207 yards, one touchdown and the one interception against Stanford. Besides a 77-yard run in the first quarter, Mariota netted only 12 yards rushing, often looking flustered under heavy pressure.
“I think a lot times we were hesitating a little bit and we were unsure of some of the fronts we were seeing,” Mariota said. “That’s the stuff we’re really going to have to clean up.”