STANFORD, Calif. -- Of all the "what ifs" Oregon will be asking in the wake of its 26-20 loss at Stanford on Thursday night, the biggest will be about a tiny ligament in quarterback Marcus Mariota's left knee.
The news that Mariota was even dealing with an injury to his MCL, reported by Eugene sports anchor Collin Harmon, didn't break until shortly before kickoff of the highly anticipated tilt between the Ducks and Cardinal.
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Mariota acknowledged the injury after the game, but refused to discuss its exact nature.
"It is what it is," Mariota said. "It's a little banged up, but it's nothing too extraordinary. We're going to take it and get healthy, and I'll be ready for next week."
Mariota had to be helped off the field in the third quarter at the end of a scramble where he lost a fumble, struggling to stand on the same left knee. Mariota returned to the game and threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns as UO cut its deficit to 26-20, but was unable to recover an onside kick and Stanford ran out the clock.
Mariota finished 20-of-34 passing for 250 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, but was also sacked three times and finished with minus-16 rushing yards. Outside of an eight-yard scramble to convert a fourth down, Mariota's trademark explosiveness was nonexistent, playing into the hands of an attacking Stanford defense.
Stanford head coach David Shaw said the plan was to deny Mariota from keeping the ball on zone-read runs, but it was his inability to extend plays by moving in the pocket or scrambling to move the chains that made his knee much more of an issue, to the point that he was asked six consecutive questions about his knee in his postgame press conference.
And his knee may have also played a factor in Mariota's occasionally erratic throws, though the relentless Stanford pass rush kept the redshirt sophomore from ever really setting his feet consistently and throwing with power and accuracy. Mariota missed on a post route to Josh Huff in the first quarter that would have given UO a 7-0 lead on its first possession and could have kept Stanford from relying on its grinding ground game.
"I missed him," Mariota said. "I just didn't get enough on it. I can make that throw. I just kind of guided it instead of throwing it."
Just another one of the "what ifs" Mariota and UO will be asking while likely watching someone else play in the Pac-12 and BCS title games.