Utah receiver Siaosi Mariner wanted more than anything to make his name known this season. He succeeded in a way he never could have imagined.
When the football bounced off his hands, then off the back of his thigh and into the arms of Washington defensive back Byron Murphy, Mariner watched in horror as Murphy returned the interception 66 yards for the only touchdown of the Huskies' 10-3 victory on Nov. 30. Mariner instantly knew how he would be remembered. As he said last week, “I’m going to be known as that kid that lost Utah’s first-ever Pac-12 championship game.”
That’s way too harsh, considering Utah’s overall offensive performance that night at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Yet it’s true Mariner was a key figure in the two plays that will be talked about for a long time. Both went against him in moments that he says illustrated “what kind of year it’s been for me.”
The season had started so much better for Mariner, who had legally changed his last name from Wilson in a tribute to Anna Mariner, the mother who raised him in southern California. With his new name in capital letters on the back of his Utah uniform, he caught six passes for 73 yards and a touchdown against Weber State, looking like a go-to receiver the Utes would need to complement Britain Covey.
Mariner's junior season quickly unraveled, though, amid injury and reduced playing time in the receivers' rotation.
After that career-best showing in the opener, he caught a total of one pass in the next six games. Mariner then made one reception in each of Utah's three Pac-12 games in November. In the regular-season finale vs. BYU, his three catches included a 37-yard play that led to the Utes' go-ahead touchdown. “It was kind of like everything was starting to fall back together for me,” he said.
But then came the Pac-12 title game, when nothing went in his favor.
Utah vs. Northwestern
When • Dec. 31, 5 p.m. MST
TV • FS1.
After a weightlifting session during the Utes' buildup to the Dec. 31 Holiday Bowl vs. Northwestern, Mariner relived the year that hardly has played out as he planned. Sitting on a bench in the annex between the practice field and the locker room, he mostly kept his head down as he spoke. Yet he willingly fielded every question, elaborating in a way that suggested the conversation was healthy for him.
Utah’s season was, “from a team aspect, unforgettable,” he said. “They accomplished something that hasn’t been done here, ever. It was great, and I enjoyed everything. Whatever I went through personally, I enjoyed what we did as a team. … Obviously, I didn’t have the year that I wanted, probably a year that nobody expected. Obviously, I let a lot of people down, but the year did teach me a lot, kind of like a steppingstone.”
The game-changing play vs. Washington was an extreme case. If a sliding Mariner merely had dropped Jason Shelley’s pass, the Utes would have kept possession in Husky territory, facing third and 5 late in the third quarter of a tie game. Instead, the ball popped into the hands of Murphy, an All-America cornerback who was beaten on the play.
“I make that catch every day; that's kind of what hurt me the most,” Mariner said. “But I'm going to take all my [losses] to the chin and get better from it.”
Mariner’s chance for redemption was ruined on Utah’s final offensive play, when Murphy was not called for pass interference, despite hitting Mariner from behind before the ball arrived. “When it was happening, I didn’t really even feel the contact right then and there,” Mariner said. “But as I looked at it, he did get there early. It was a bang-bang play. … I feel like we probably shouldn’t have been in that position, if I make [the previous] catch.”
So he's living with those memories, eager to play again a month later. Covey once described Mariner as the confidence-builder in the receivers' meeting room, encouraging them to maximize their strengths, such as Covey's quickness. Covey will miss the Holiday Bowl after his knee injury against Washington, so Mariner and the others will become more important. And now he's the one receiving support.
“We're all there to let him know that we have his back and that it's OK,” Samson Nacua said. “We've still got one game to go, and everyone's going to be focused on what happens now. So that's what we told him: When that game comes, be ready to make those plays that we know you can make.”
Mariner already is looking beyond New Year's Eve in San Diego, toward 2019. “This whole year's going to make a monster out of me. I'm excited to see what the future holds,” he said. “I feel like I haven't gotten to show this university who I really am and the player I can be.”
And then almost smiled, before exiting into the December evening. “Call me crazy,” Mariner said, “but I still feel like I’m the best receiver in this conference. I just can’t wait to get the chance to prove it.”