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Shaq Thompson vs. Marcus Mariota Matchup has Heisman Potential

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The two most impossible jobs in college football this week will belong to two anonymous players in Eugene and Seattle.

One of their tasks this week will be to imitate a linebacker who can play running back and has more touchdowns than one entire FBCS team. The other will be to play the role of a dual threat quarterback who hasn’t thrown a pick since last season.

These are players stepping in to help Oregon and Washington prepare for two of the biggest game-changers in the country in linebacker Shaq Thompson and quarterback Marcus Mariota.

“In terms of preparation, you don’t have many Shaq Thompsons running around on your scout team,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.

Or Mariotas, for that matter. When Oregon and Washington meet at Autzen Stadium on Saturday, the subplot of Mariota vs. Thompson may be the most compelling individual offense vs. defense matchup this season.

True, this may not be a true one-on-one matchup on every down, but rest assured, one will always be wary of the other.

Moreover, this could be the rare time two Heisman contenders face each other when they’re on the field at the same time.

Though Mariota never slumped when his offensive line was down to backups, the return of left tackle Jake Fisher re-established Mariota as one of the top quarterbacks in the country.

The senior is completing 69.7 percent of his passes for 1,621 yards with 17 touchdowns while rushing for 290 yards and five scores.

“He’s an accurate thrower and understands their systems inside and out and that makes him a great player,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said.

Petersen, though, has a player who is just as much a difference-maker on his defense.

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Thompson was a highly coveted recruit in 2012 and finished his first two seasons as an All-Pac-12 honorable mention. The next step for Thompson has been astronomical.

Washington experimented with Thompson on offense, where he’s rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. He hasn’t needed to play running back, though, to reach the end zone.

Thompson has recovered four turnovers this season (three fumbles, one interception) and returned them all for touchdowns.

The junior will be in a matchup whose only turnovers this season were two fumbles in a game two weeks ago against Arizona.

“(Thompson)'s been phenomenal,” Helfrich said. “It’s not usual that you need to worry about a defensive player in the end zone so much. That’s something we need to eliminate. It’s been incredible how many plays he’s made and also guys around him that have created a tipped ball or a ball knocked out that went the other way. That’s not by accident.”

Heisman contenders face off all the time, but usually this is a quarterback paired with another quarterback or running back. Even as defensive players are becoming more and more realistic contenders for the award, they’ve rarely been able to impact another Heisman contender directly.

In 2011, LSU defensive back Tyrann Mathieu and Alabama running back Trent Richardson were on the field at the same time for a 9-6 LSU win. Both finished in the top five of the Heisman voting.

The most impactful recent offense vs. defense matchup was 2009. Nebraska lost the Big 12 championship game to Texas that year, but defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh turned himself into a Heisman finalist with a dominant performance (4.5 sacks, 12 tackles) against Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy.

The Texas signal caller finished third that year, but only 159 points behind winner Mark Ingram of Alabama in a close race. Suh finished fourth.

This game may be too early in the season to declare one as the clear winner over the other, at least as far as postseason awards are concerned, but the possibilities in this matchup are too good to miss.

“I just know (Mariota)’s one of the elite players in the country,” Petersen said. “I talked to the Oregon guys more then than I would now because we compete against each other. I know how strongly they felt about him. They were always jumping up and down about him. I knew he was the real deal for a long, long time.”

On Saturday, Petersen will learn if he has a talent to match.