DALLAS — It was a somber scene. Six University of Oregon football team buses parked in one perfect and neat row on the tarmac at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport early Tuesday morning. The rigs were in tight formation, lined up side by side, doors open, while the Ducks football players and staffers shuffled off toward the team charter.

On an adjacent airport runway, a McDonnell-Douglass MD-80 carrying 155 Portland-bound passengers pulled in for a closer look prior to takeoff and slowed. The pilot of American Airlines flight No. 1453 interrupted the morning silence with, “Out our right side folks, the Oregon Ducks football team … tough night, bless ’em.”

Necks craned. Noses touched windows. None of the passengers said much, after all, Ohio State opened and closed the national title conversation 42-20 on Monday night. But if any of the Oregon players in the procession might have looked up what they’d have seen on the right side of that passing aircraft was 32 oval windows with 32 appreciative faces pressed up against them.

Monday night may have been the end of a football season. It may have come with the crunch of Ezkiel Elliott’s shoulder pads and the thud Cardale Jones’ footsteps but as long as we’re talking about the story of Oregon football, this feels more like a middle than an end.

Ducks coach Mark Helfrich offered after the game that he thinks Oregon can get back to a national title stage. How confident?

“Extremely confident,” he said. “It’s really hard, but Oregon, the University of Oregon, is a place that obviously that can happen and has happened. 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.”

That’s the question to ask today, isn’t it? Is Oregon taking flight? Or grounded?

I’d argue that the reason Monday night felt so sobering, so painful for the UO players and coaches and, naturally, Ducks fans who rooted alongside them for months was because the expectations before a single snapped football were that Oregon would win the national title.

Think about those stakes for a moment.

One of the participating football programs from the 1983 “Toilet Bowl” found itself three decades later lined up in the third quarter of the national title game, trailing by one point, with its fan base all in emotionally.

Marcus Mariota and Byron Marshall answer questions following the Oregon Ducks loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Jan 11, 2015, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Thomas Boyd/Staff 

Ohio State blew the lid off the game, of course. Nobody will soon forget the sight of Elliott slashing into the secondary or of Jones lowering his shoulder and displacing Oregon’s defensive lineman as if he were playing croquet on the front lawn.

But what I see in this program, and what I’m sure you do, too, isn’t an end. Even if Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota should declare for the draft. Even if injuries should happen. Even if obstacles should present itself. Monday’s blowout loss and Tuesday’s solemn wake didn’t feel like the end as much as it held the possibility of being another beginning.

Like Jan. 2, 1995 and a lost Rose Bowl to Penn State. Like the BCS snub of the Ducks in 2001. Like the Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State in Jan. 2010 that was parlayed into the BCS title-game loss to Auburn in Jan. 2011. The pain of a moment such as this can either become a dagger or a bridge. Even as America might wonder if they’ll ever hear from the Ducks again, anyone who has followed this program understands it cuts itself a wide berth.

The Ducks will never get another Joey Harrington, right? Or another Dennis Dixon? How will Oregon replace the exiled Jeremiah Masoli? Or the fleeing Darron Thomas? What will UO do now without Mariota, if he should leave, right?

There are huge questions for Helfrich and his coaching staff after the loss. There are challenges for the players. The system was shot full of holes by Elliott and Jones. But if the past is any indication, Oregon will just pick up and move forward.

You can choose to view Monday night as an indictment of Oregon’s system. You can decide that unless the Ducks can recruit and retain more physical players at the point of attack they’ll always need a perfect game to beat a program like Ohio State. They’ve already signed a couple of recruits with mutant-like physiques. But they’re going to need even more.

After all, Ohio State flicked away four turnovers and still won by three touchdowns. The Buckeyes were the wrong team at the wrong time for Oregon. But ultimately what Monday night felt like was a lousy night in a dreamy season. Also, another beginning for the Ducks.

There were lots of Oregonians, souls who suffered through losing seasons and heart-wrenching near misses on the bigger stages with the Ducks, Beavers and Blazers who longed to finally see a team from this state break through on Monday night.

OSU has a couple of NCAA baseball championships. There’s great track and field and some other sports successes. But it’s been since June 1977 and the Blazers lone title since we hoisted any kind of meaningful big-three major sports hardware with America watching.

I heard from one frustrated woman who said in a profanity-laced tirade after the game, “Do I have to MOVE to be rooting for the winning team?”

It’s OK to smile today.

You know exactly how she feels. You’ve suffered. There’s a little Tom Joad in every Northwest sports fan.

Oregon finished 13-2 this season. It won a Rose Bowl. It won a Pac-12 title. It reached the first ever College Football Playoff. The Ducks will return as many as 28 juniors next season. Phil Knight remains a booster. And blue-collar Ducks fans remain engaged and curious about where this program might go next.

Ohio State won the national championship. The Buckeyes took a long victory lap. But it’s Oregon’s move now. As I saw the buses lined up on the tarmac, I couldn’t help but notice they were in some kind of formation. As if they were ready to snap the ball and go again, this time with big-rigs like Ohio State.

Necks craned. Noses against the window. We’re all still watching. Not out of pity. But because this thing feels like it still has a chance to go somewhere.


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