After the dust had settled from Oregon's quarter and a third firework show at Autzen Stadium, Bryan Bennett was left with almost three solid quarters to state his case for the Ducks starting quarterback job. Bennett has been through a lot in the last nine months. The minute Darron Thomas misguidedly declared for the NFL Draft, Bennett, last season's cameo hero against Arizona State, Colorado and Washington State, was the heir apparent to one of the best jobs in college football. How quickly that all changed.
What the wave of Marcus Mariota fever has swept away is the memory of just how electric Bryan Bennett was last season for the Ducks. Bennett's fast and fiery nature was a welcome change from the often effective, but slacking and dragging play, of Darron Thomas. When Thomas limped off against the Sun Devils on Saturday Night Football, the Ducks trailed 24-21. With Bennett at the helm, Oregon outscored Arizona State 20-3, and won 45-27 in front of the largest ever crowd at Autzen, with the entire team feeding off of Bennett's verve and aggressiveness. Bennett led the Ducks over Colorado the next week, and had the same effect as he did against Arizona State when a lethargic Thomas was pulled at halftime of the Washington State game. There were even whispers that Bennett should get the job full-time.
If I was Darron Thomas, I would have wanted to escape the quickly growing shadow of Bryan Bennett too. If I was the most successful quarterback in my program's history, was coming off a Rose Bowl victory, and I wasn't guaranteed the starting quarterback position next season, I might have left as well. Bennett was thought of that highly by Thomas, and people in the program, even coming off last year's historic highs. It seemed a formality and a necessity that Kelly should have somebody else competing for the quarterback job, just to stay true to form. But it never seemed like Bennett would be beaten out for the job by redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota.
Problem was, we didn't know just how good Mariota was, and we can only guess Marcus was wearing the Super Mario-ta cape he showed off against Arkansas State in practice last year. Mariota was sensational Saturday night. The 50 points in 16 minutes speaks for itself. So does the 18-22 passing night. And the three touchdowns. But Mariota's aura and confidence was contagious, his poise and composure standing out even against a team where he didn't need it. Look, I don't want to get ahead of myself - it was Arkansas State - but it's hard not seeing Mariota walking out of Autzen in 2016 as the most successful quarterback in Oregon history. Thomas was steamrolled by Bennett. Bennett was steamrolled by Mariota.
The first sign of trouble for Bennett game in the spring game, where he was clearly outplayed by his younger opponent. That made me think it was a real race. And as the days ticked by down the stretch in fall camp, it became obvious that Mariota had won the job. Bennett was the sure thing. We saw last year how he performed in college football, even under pressure, he had the leg up in experience, and he was the clear choice. When he wasn't being picked, we knew why. Mariota won the job.
Against Arkansas State, Kelly's decision looked like a no-brainier. As cool and explosive as Mariota was, that's how Bennett was frazzled and flailing and trying to do too much in his two and a half quarters. I know the wind had been let out of the Ducks sails, and I know Bennett didn't have the first team at his disposal, but the problem was Bennett. His aggressive nature led to balls being overthrown, and adrenaline ruling over the quarterback. Bennett played like he had pressure on his shoulders, when in fact he had no pressure. Mariota played like he had no pressure, when in fact, he did have pressure. It seems like Bennett let the pressure get to him in the spring game, and there on out in the Ducks quarterback competition. It showed on game day, and it showed that Kelly made the right choice.
With Mariota at the helm, Oregon has a chance to be great in 2012. Don't get fooled by the second team’s lackadaisical performance; it won't matter in big games. Look at the 50-3 score, and you have the proper measure of the Ducks dominance against Arkansas State. Oregon shouldn't lose this year, save for the toss-up game against USC. The conference is weak - losses against non-BCS schools for Washington State, Cal, Colorado, and mighty struggles against similar teams for Arizona, Washington, and Stanford prove that. Hopefully Mariota can continue his impressive play, and hopefully his calmness guides the Ducks during the adverse moments of the year, when you can't help but feel Bennett would have been governed by anything but composure.
When the announcement finally came down, Bennett considered transferring. I might have done the same thing. But he stayed, because he must have realized that somewhere in his mind, if he wanted to play at the top of college football, he's better as an impact sub than a starter. His impact on Saturday was negative, and you can't afford that in your starter. It was a sharp fall for Bennett, in contrast to the sharp rise of Oregon football players, especially at quarterback. But if you look at the facts, it shouldn't be a surprise. Feel bad for Bennett, but be thankful for Mariota. These Ducks wouldn't have been the same without him.