Oregon wasted a golden opportunity to win its first national championship
ARLINGTON, Texas — Near the bottom of a 13-point list of superlatives from the postgame notes handed out by the Oregon sports information staff late Monday night — about an hour after the No. 2 Ducks were defeated 42-20 by the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes — was an item touting that "the Ducks are now 60-8 this decade, which still ranks as the most wins in the FBS during that span."
It is an impressive note, yet it reads hollow right now.
Oregon has accomplished pretty much everything a college powerhouse should: It won a bunch of BCS bowls, blasted a lot of ranked teams, produced a Heisman Trophy winner and snapped another elite program’s 29-game winning streak when the Ducks hammered defending national champ Florida State in a 39-point romp in the Rose Bowl. But the one thing missing on the resume is the most important element: a national title. And this felt like the Ducks’ best shot since it came in what many believe was Marcus Mariota’s final college game, and against a Buckeyes squad that was relying on a QB (redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones) who was making only his third career start. The Buckeyes were a touchdown underdog. They even gifted the Ducks four turnovers on the night, and Oregon, uncharacteristically, couldn’t capitalize.
The Buckeyes simply made more plays in crunch time than the Ducks did, going 11 for 18 on third and fourth down situations, while Oregon went just 2 for 14. "We just made a lot of mistakes and they’ve got a great defense and are a great team," said senior Oregon wideout Keanon Lowe.
Four years ago, the Ducks played in the BCS Championship Game and lost on a last-second field goal. The head coach of that Oregon team, Chip Kelly, is gone — although he came to Texas to support his old program, where most of his old coaching staff still remains under his protégé Mark Helfrich.
But this loss seems tougher for Oregon. The Ducks are no longer just the funky upstart with the crazy uniforms and frenetic style. They’re an established brand. And yet, this one wasn’t anywhere near as close, and they got mauled by a more physical team. The Ducks’ explosive ground attack got short-circuited. On 33 carries, they didn’t have a run longer than 11 yards.
Meanwhile, they also couldn’t stop sophomore Ezekiel Elliott from running wild, as he gained 246 yards and rushed for four touchdowns. Worse still, there were several times when Jones, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound QB, barreled through Duck tacklers, including when he powered through Oregon’s nose guard to make a first down.
Helfrich said that this loss feels very similar to the other national title game loss.
"It’s a tough pill to swallow, knowing everything that these guys put into this season and how much we want these guys to be successful in the minds of everyone," he said, adding that he is "extremely confident" that the Ducks will get back on this stage again.
"Everything is in place from a support standpoint and facilities standpoint and infrastructure standpoint, talent, our coaching staff is outstanding and the leadership is outstanding. That’s kind of all the ingredients."
One of the key ingredients, a transcendent playmaking triggerman — Mariota — though may be done, and there isn’t a likely replacement poised to take over in the program. Oregon also will lose three senior O-linemen.
"It’s very tough," said freshman wideout Charles Nelson about the prospect of this being Mariota’s final game as a Duck. "He has been such a great player and such a great leader, and for him to go out like this is very sad."
Asked to put Mariota’s legacy in perspective, Helfrich evoked the name of NFL great Dan Marino, who never won a Super Bowl. "I think you could certainly argue that this was the best, if not certainly one of the top two or three greatest seasons in college football history," Helfrich said. "And then if you add in the person and the legacy that he has from that standpoint, there has never been one greater. None."
Mariota wasn’t ready to say whether this was his last game as a Duck or not. He said he’d take the next few days with his family to decide on that.
If he doesn’t come back, it’ll probably take the Ducks some time to regroup. Mariota seemed to be the one irreplaceable part on a 2014 squad that battled through a staggering amount of injuries and attrition. Whoever next QBs the Ducks will get to work with the best array of skill guys Oregon has ever had. But it’s clear the Ducks’ defense needs more upgrading. They had no answers Monday night for the Buckeyes power-play run to the weak side. Oregon’s own O-line also had its hands full with the active Ohio State front.
"We’ll be back," said senior center Hroniss Grasu. "These guys are going to keep improving. There’s a lot of young talented guys we’ve got playing, and we’re going to keep fighting no matter what and we’re gonna keep believing, and that’s all that matters."
Bruce Feldman is a senior college football reporter and columnist for FOXSports.com and FOX Sports 1. He is also a New York Times Bestselling author. His new book, "The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks," came out in October 2014. Follow him on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB.