Marcus Mariota, Oregon fall to Ohio State's strength – USA TODAY
After losing to Ohio State in the national championship, will the Ducks be able to make it back in 2015?
ARLINGTON, Texas — Even as Oregon’s path to the national championship game encountered potential potholes of injuries, attrition and adversity, coaches and players held fast to an incorruptible faith in the system.
There are worse areas in which to place your trust. For the better part of a decade, Oregon has succeeded at a near-unmatched clip despite a changing and rotating cast of characters, trusting in a deeply ingrained philosophy to hurdle any impediment –for example, the loss of leading wide receiver Darren Carrington, who was ruled ineligible for the title game after failing an NCAA-sanctioned drug test.
“The process that Coach (Mark) Helfrich and these coaches and the rest of the staff at the university have put in place has been successful,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “Just continue to trust that, take it one day at a time, find ways to always improve, and just take it from there.”
The system, and the sense of invincibility it lent this program, brought Oregon to the doorstep of its first national title. And it’s true: National championships are won with styles, with schemes, with philosophies and, of course, with players.
But there are national championships, and there are national championship games. Oregon’s style carried the Ducks to Monday night, one win from the first title in program history. At AT&T Stadium, the same style was foiled by an Ohio State team built from old-fashioned toughness – the sort of opponent that has long served as the program’s Achilles‘ heel.
This was Auburn, which beat Oregon to claim the 2010 national championship. This was LSU, which throttled Oregon in the 2011 regular-season opener. This was Stanford, which used its contrasting faith in a pro-style approach to top Oregon in both 2012 and 2013.
Like these teams, Ohio State pummeled the Ducks with a formula rooted in simplicity: The Buckeyes charged at the heart of Oregon’s defense with running back Ezekiel Elliott, the Offensive Player of the Game, and quarterback Cardale Jones, two battering-ram runners who carried the Buckeyes’ offense as well as Oregon defenders.
“We knew going into the game that defense was probably their weakest part of the team. We were going to have to attack it,” Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman said. “It really came down to our culture versus their culture. Our culture is toughness, and their culture is speed. Deep down, we believe toughness wins games. It showed tonight.”
Elliott, one of the breakout stars during Ohio State’s College Football Playoff push, finished with 246 yards on 36 carries – exceeding the 200-yard mark for the third game in a row. In just his third career start, Jones accounted for 280 yards of offense and two touchdowns.
“Seeing our offense versus their offense, you could definitely tell that theirs was based off of speed and ours was based off that toughness,” Ohio State safety Tyvis Powell said.
It was thought Oregon had exercised this demon during the regular season. Michigan State, famed for its defensive stinginess, fell victim to the Ducks’ frenetic offensive pace during nonconference play. Stanford, inept on both sides of the ball, was left flailing in a lopsided defeat.
In the Rose Bowl, Oregon’s physicality ended Florida State’s multiple-year winning streak. On offense, the Ducks’ running game chewed up the Seminoles’ defensive front. On defense, an aggressive and opportunistic style piloted by first-year coordinator Don Pellum forced a number of mistakes in the second half, keying the Ducks’ 59-20 win.
Yet Ohio State, a team cut from the same cloth, quickly and successfully identified Oregon’s fatal flaw – sending the Ducks back to the drawing board in an effort to find the formula that can lead to both regular-season and postseason success.
At the same time, the program will face a renewed chorus of complaints questioning its ability to reach the top of the Football Bowl Subdivision. The same can be said of the Pac-12 Conference, which rode Oregon’s success to a place alongside the Southeastern Conference among the strongest leagues in college football.
It’s a tired refrain for Oregon’s departed seniors, who in the process of leading the program back to the threshold of the national championship hoped to put the theory to rest.
“I don’t really pay attention to people who say that,” wide receiver Keanon Lowe said. “They don’t watch college football.”
Yet for Ducks, the championship game was proof that old habits die hard. Oregon has made progress since losses to Auburn, LSU and Stanford. Ohio State proved the Ducks still have room for growth.
“We’re close,” Oregon center Hroniss Grasu said. “Every single year we’re getting better. Another learning experience. You learn from it, you get better from it, and that’s all that you can do. They’ll get better from it.”
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP