If college football success is all about the quarterback, as so many analysts believe, the knee-jerk reflex is to prepare the green-and-gold confetti Monday night at AT&T Stadium and brace for another celebratory speech from Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
On the Ducks’ sideline, Mariota is the Heisman Trophy winner who has been responsible for 56 touchdowns this season. He’s thrown only three interceptions.
Teammates speak about him in hushed tones, praising his humility and selfless acts. Included is Mariota’s habit of thanking scout-team players after each practice for their efforts in sharpening the skills of the starters.
“He wows me every single day because he’s a dynamic player,” Oregon outside linebacker Tony Washington said. “But he wows me most off the field because he’s such an humble guy and a caring person. He puts everyone else above himself. That’s something you don’t see too much from a quarterback.”
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It’s certainly not the scouting report on Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones, a forgotten third-teamer as recently as Nov. 29. His college career, until a 2-0 record as an emergency starter in the Buckeyes’ past two games, was best defined by countless practical jokes he’s pulled on teammates and one notable Twitter post in 2012 about how “classes are POINTLESS” for college football players.
Jones, 22, understands how most fans perceive him in comparison to Mariota, 21, heading into the College Football Playoff National Championship at 7:30 p.m. Monday.
“I’m just glad I’m on offense and don’t have to face him,” Jones said, reflecting on Mariota’s stunning statistics, highlighted by a touchdown passes-to-interceptions ratio of 103-13 in his college career. “How can I match that? He’s the best player in the country. I’m just trying to run our offense and play my game.”
Jones’ response to comparisons this week about Mariota suggests how much the mental approach has changed in recent months for the Buckeyes’ happy-go-lucky, practical joker who will lead the Ohio State offense. And that metamorphosis will make things interesting.
Who can be certain that the quarterback playing with an uncluttered mind and a limited track record cannot take down the heralded, clinical technician in one winner-take-all showdown? That is why Jones and the Buckeyes cannot be counted out.
Jones credits the recent birth of his daughter, Chloe, combined with multiple come-to-Jesus talks with OSU coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman with helping him embrace the responsibility necessary to thrive in his current role.
“Cardale has always had the talent. But, really, something has happened in the last couple of months,” Meyer said Sunday in assessing his quarterback’s progress. “Everybody in life has a chance to push the restart button. Not many people do it on a grand stage like Cardale has. But he’s hit the right button. That’s one of the great stories in college football.”
So, too, is Mariota’s tale of humble Hawaiian Heisman winner who spends his spare time working with underprivileged children at the Boys & Girls Club in Eugene, Ore. Being around the kids, Mariota said, allows him to “let loose a little bit” in ways he cannot as the Oregon quarterback.
“They don’t care who you are. They don’t understand who you play for,” Mariota said. “It’s kind of refreshing to be part of that environment.”
That attitude explains why Mariota, who received his college degree in December (in 3 1/2 years), is Oregon’s unquestioned team leader. On and off the field, his track record is impeccable.
Jones, on the other hand, likes to color outside the lines. At a news conference before the Sugar Bowl, he snuck into a crowd of reporters questioning Herman and extended his cellphone as if to record his coach’s responses. Herman playfully swatted at Jones’ phone with his name placard.
During last week’s news conference, Jones (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) interrupted a live TV interview with safety Tyvis Powell, his roommate, by doing cartwheels in the background.
Powell chuckled when answering questions about a quarterback who answers to the nicknames of “12-Gauge” (his number) or “Hollywood.” The unique twist?
“He’s given them to himself,” Powell said, shaking his head. “I’ve never heard of that before. But that’s Cardale. We’re always joking and laughing, doing the same stuff we’ve always done.”
That relaxed approach, combined with game plans tailored to Jones’ primary skill sets (strong arm, excellent mobility), has helped the sophomore thrive in a limited sample as the Buckeyes’ starter.
Jones’ passing efficiency rating (159.0) would rank seventh nationally, ahead of Baylor’s Bryce Petty (157.8), if Jones had enough attempts to qualify. He’s averaged 5.1 yards per carry (51 rushes, 258 yards) and Jones’ arm strength is defined by one legendary practice moment.
“He threw the ball through the uprights from 65 yards, off one knee,” Powell said. “I saw him do it. I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’”
With Jones’ skill set, it is not ridiculous to consider that the former third-teamer might be able to author another upset. In pressure-filled situations, sometimes the uncluttered mind is a terrific way to drown out the distractions in a high-stakes title game.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760
Total TDs this season
Yards of total offense
(Soph., Ohio State)
Total TDs this season
Yards of total offense