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Planning for success: Marcus Mariota vs. Scooby Wright

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is 1-2 in his career against the Arizona Wildcats. Linebacker Scooby Wright III is 2-0 against the Ducks. After Friday's Pac-12 championship game in Santa Clara, California, one guy will either be perfect, or the other will be at .500.

Too often, storylines in big games pit quarterback against quarterback. It makes for fun fodder and debate, but they rarely play out since opposing quarterbacks don’t share the field at the same time. In this case, however, you have one of the best linebackers in the country going head to head with one of the best offensive players.

If Wright and Co. want to stay perfect against Mariota and the Ducks, chances are they are going to have to find a way to force turnovers. Recent history suggests that might not be a problem, since Arizona has had more success at forcing Mariota to turn the ball over than any other team has.

One of Mariota’s greatest assets is that he takes care of the ball. In 38 career games, he’s turned the ball over 23 times; 12 interceptions -- a pretty amazing stat -- and 11 fumbles. Of those 11, three have come while rushing the football and the other eight have come via sacks. The last time Mariota had a rushing fumble (non-sack related) was in 2012 against USC.

But against Arizona, Mariota has habit of giving it back. Six of his 23 career turnovers have come against the Wildcats -- three interceptions and three fumbles, two of those coming off of sacks.

A pair of Mariota’s most notorious turnovers, in fact, have come against the Wildcats. To be more specific, they’ve come at the hands of Wright, who has emerged as Mariota’s nemesis of sorts.

Recall last year when Shaq Richardson flipped a deflected Mariota pass back in bounds. Wright caught it. It snapped Mariota’s streak of 353 pass attempts without an interception, and the ‘Cats went on to win 42-16. Richardson should get at least 95 percent of the credit for his effort, but it shows up as a Wright interception on the stat sheet.

The second turnover, however, was 100 percent a Scooby Snack. Earlier this season, with Arizona leading the Ducks 31-24, it was Wright who sacked Mariota on Oregon’s final drive and ripped the ball from him as the two were going to the ground. Wright was credited with the forced and recovered fumble, and the Ducks never got the ball back.

“Scooby just has a knack,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. “One, obviously, it is effort and he was able to keep on that play. It was just a great individual effort when he kept going. I don't think Marcus saw him and Scooby got the sack, strip and recovery, which was a great individual play on him. Scooby has done that to a lot of people through effort. That play was more effort than anything else. I haven't coached a guy like Scooby probably stat wise. Without going through the whole career of stats, there was probably no one with that kind of numbers.”

The numbers for both players are impressive. Mariota is completing 68.6 percent of his throws with 36 touchdowns to just two interceptions this season. He’s also run for 636 yards and 11 scores.

Conversely, Wright is tied for the Pac-12 lead with 139 tackles. But he also leads the country with 2.3 tackles for a loss per game (27 total) and is third nationally with 1.17 sacks per game (14 total). Those aren’t the typical numbers of an inside linebacker. Last week's Walter Camp national player of the week has re-defined the position this season.

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, of course, doesn’t see it as “Mariota” turnovers. And in a lot of cases, that’s a sweeping generalization. Rather, turnovers are a team mistake.

“There are so many factors that go into being a productive offense,” Helfrich said. “It’s an 11-man job. It’s the timing of the route, depth of the route, all of those deals that come into play. If you hold the ball too long against these guys, you see it against everybody, it’s getting turned over.”