BY JEREMY HOECK
Jason Petrino had the unenviable task in August of scheming for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and then watching game film of Mariota slicing through Petrino’s defense.
Not exactly enjoyable on either account for Petrino, the defensive coordinator at the University of South Dakota.
What did Petrino see on film after the third-ranked Ducks thrashed the Coyotes 62-13 back on Aug. 30 in Eugene?
“You were just thankful you didn’t have to see that talent again,” Petrino joked Monday.
As it turns out, USD that night was facing the eventual Heisman Trophy winner.
Mariota, a projected first-round NFL prospect, was awarded Saturday night the Heisman Trophy as the top college football player in the country — he received the second-highest percentage (90.9) of points in the award’s history.
For the team he faced in the 2014 season opener, it was a rare first-hand glimpse at college football’s elite talent.
Not only was USD playing its first-ever game against a top-5 FBS opponent, it may have marked the only time in Missouri Valley Football Conference history that a member school faced the eventual Heisman winner — preliminary research didn’t reveal any other examples.
“Any time you play an Alabama or a Florida State, or anyone in the top four, all of those kids are just so much better than anyone you’ll ever see,” Petrino said.
Against the Coyotes, Mariota completed 14-of-20 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns in one half of action — with his Ducks up 41-13.
That trip to Eugene wasn’t exactly a ‘business trip’ in the sense that USD was expecting to potentially compete if everything went its way. It was more of an opportunity to see that level, and to bring home a $525,000 check.
Players and coaches decked out in red that night raved later about Mariota’s performance.
“I told someone after the game, ‘You might be seeing him in New York (for the Heisman ceremony),’” Petrino said. “He’s pretty special, you could just see it.”
During that trip to Eugene, USD realized the extent to which Mariota’s exploits went beyond the Autzen Stadium field, Petrino said. One such — now well-told — story tells it that Mariota routinely stops to give homeless people food and water on his way home from practice.
“He was always gifted as a football player, but the things you’re hearing more about are how good of a person he is,” Petrino said.
When it comes to slinging the ball, Mariota has also gotten it done.
With the inaugural college football playoff remaining, he has completed 68 percent of his passes this season for 3,783 yards and 38 touchdowns, with only two interceptions in 372 throws.
“When he is playing, it’s almost effortless,” Petrino said. “He’s so calm and in control. He’s so comfortable in that offense.”
Petrino, though, couldn’t help but sound like a defensive coach. He pointed to Oregon’s one loss this season, a home defeat to Arizona, is one area where any team could have success against a touted quarterback — in that loss, Mariota was sacked five times.
“When Oregon struggled, they were banged up up front, and if you can get pressure on a quarterback, even Mariota, it changes his world quite a bit,” Petrino said.
The Coyotes, though, were unique in their pursuit of getting to a quarterback like Mariota.
Part of that is because, put simply, Missouri Valley teams don’t often face top-5 FBS programs.
League teams are 37-223 all-time against FBS teams, including wins this season by North Dakota State (over Iowa State) and Indiana State (over Ball State). Valley teams also played Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Northwestern, Oklahoma State, Purdue and Wisconsin.
Western Illinois also came close to facing a potential Heisman winner. The Leathernecks played against Badgers standout running back Melvin Gordon (the Heisman runner-up) back in September, losing 37-3.
You can follow Jeremy Hoeck on Twitter at twitter.com/jhoeck. Discuss this story at http://www.yankton.net.