QB pressure ramps up on all fronts at Oregon

EUGENE — Imagine a true freshman making a mistake that puts a Heisman Trophy candidate in harm's way.

It happened to No. 2 Oregon during Saturday night's 62-38 victory over Washington State.

Cameron Hunt, who made his first start at right tackle in place of junior Jake Fisher, did not have a perfect debut protecting Marcus Mariota from the Cougars' physical defensive front.

Instead of barking at the rookie after feeling the heat in the backfield, the Ducks' star quarterback calmly provided some teaching points for Hunt learn from.

"It's a little bit of pressure because all eyes are on him," Hunt said of protecting one of the nation's elite players and top NFL draft prospects. "Marcus is a great guy and he's really humble. I think him helping us out also makes us a lot better.

"I know I gave up a couple pressures, and he ran away from them and made me look a little better."

With ESPN's "GameDay" officially set to broadcast from Eugene this Saturday, the Oregon-UCLA game will be at the center of the college football universe.

If Mariota delivers a strong performance in a victory over the No. 12 Bruins, the Heisman Trophy might be his to lose entering November.

"As we've seen over the last decade, you can do whatever you want in September and October, as long as you don't take yourself out of it," former Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington said last week when asked about Mariota's status as a front-runner for the most prestigious individual award in sports. "November is when the Heisman is won."

During his Monday session with the media, Mariota mostly discussed the two fumbles he lost against Washington State.

"The ball is our friend," said Mariota, who still finished 327 yards passing 67 yards rushing and three total touchdowns. "We can't have it out there like that."

Mariota's first turnover of the season occurred in the second quarter of the Ducks' seventh game. His second fumble on the next possession was returned for a touchdown, which allowed the Cougars to get within 27-21.

Even though Oregon responded to the adversity with 28 unanswered points, Mariota doesn't view the miscues as negligible.

"Obviously, I have to take care of the ball a lot better. I was pretty nonchalant with it in the pocket," Mariota said. "We were fortunate to come out with a win with that, but in some of these games coming up we can't have that."

Through the largely uneventful 7-0 start, Mariota has been able to give the extra individual attention the Heisman stiff-arm.

Harrington, who finished fourth in the voting after the 2001 season, said even the unflappable kid from Honolulu isn't immune to the pressure.

The Ducks, who are currently No. 3 in the BCS standings behind No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Florida State, follow up the home game against UCLA with another high-profile game at Stanford on Nov. 7.

"It hasn't even ramped up. This is kind of dipping your toes in the water," Harrington said. "The more Marcus continues to play like this, the more pressure there will be and the more people will talk. It's impossible to completely ignore it.

"The great players don't try to ignore it, they embrace it, they accept it for what it is."

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