DALLAS — Seven hours after Ohio State denied Oregon a College Football Playoff National Championship one battering-ram carry by Ezekiel Elliott at a time, the sun rose over Dallas, same as always.

College football had moved on.

But the eyes of Texas, and certainly those in Oregon and around the Pac-12 Conference, remained on the Ducks, whose response to a second loss in a national title game in five seasons — not to mention the potential loss of several marquee stars to the NFL draft — will be monitored closely for the next nine months for any indications their grip on the conference has loosened.

Instead of returning to Eugene with the College Football Playoff championship and a parade Tuesday afternoon, Oregon begins a search to recreate much of the magic of 2014, while finding the answers to fix its bitter start to 2015.

Those are long-term goals, however, whose results won’t be known until September.

Other aspects of the rebuilding begins immediately.

Thursday is the deadline for underclassmen to apply for early entry into the NFL draft, and less than 24 hours after the loss to the Buckeyes, Duck defensive lineman Arik Armstead announced he would test the pro waters. 

Armstead, NFLdraftscout.com estimates, should be either a first- or second-round pick because of his 6-foot-8, 290-pound frame and career-high 46 tackles in 2014, a season in which he played a key role in some of Oregon’s biggest defensive stands — see stuffs of Michigan State on fourth down in September and Florida State at the goal line in January.

“I’m ready to test myself at the next level,” he said in a prepared statement.

The clock is ticking whether three others Ducks feel the same way.

Junior quarterback Marcus Mariota is considered a top-five pick in May’s NFL draft should he forgo his senior season as is expected. Junior defensive end DeForest Buckner, another possible late first-round pick, and receiver Byron Marshall are the others.

Once the NFL choices are official and the latest recruiting class is signed in February, the Ducks can go about its encore of an historic season.

The team was not available to speak Tuesday, but soon after leaving AT&T Stadium early in the morning, head coach Mark Helfrich took to Twitter: “Wish so bad we could have won this last game, but this group will always be champions.”

Indeed, they will be remembered as the program’s first conference champion since 2011. And they crushed then-reigning national champion Florida State by more than five touchdowns in a playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.

The team also reaped unprecedented individual accolades thanks to junior quarterback Marcus Mariota’s brilliance, as he won the Heisman Trophy, AP, Maxwell and Walter Camp honors for player of the year, and the Davey O’Brien and Johnny Unitas awards for most outstanding quarterback.

Along the way, Mariota became a unanimous All-American, joining LaMichael James as the second in UO history.

“I don’t care about legacies,” he said after the loss, still in his pads at a podium underneath AT&T Stadium while the Buckeyes danced in confetti down the tunnel. “That’s other people’s opinions. My main focus was to be a great teammate. That’s all I hoped to accomplish.”

Unlike how he had in so many games before, Mariota’s 333 passing yards and two touchdowns Monday against the Buckeyes couldn’t save his team from costly mistakes that were just as damaging as Elliott’s unstoppable 6.8-yard per carry average running the ball.

Had the Ducks not committed 10 penalties, dropped two critical passes that stopped promising first-quarter drives and generally gone 2-of-12 on third down — they entered the game fourth-best in the country at converting that down — the Ducks would have been in much better position in the fourth quarter.

“They just played their game, to be honest,” Marshall said afterward. “We tried to play ours. It didn’t really work out as planned. But I mean, we can’t really take credit away from Ohio State. They just came out ahead and they really just balled out.”

They left the game lamenting those self-inflicted wounds, rather than blaming the scheme at large. It is not expected either the offense or defense will undergo major overhauls in the offseason, because though the defeat marks a step backward for the conference’s national reputation as a league capable to win its first championship since 2004, the Ducks shed their long-standing characterization of a finesse team that broke under pressure with victories against Michigan State, longtime nemesis Stanford and Florida State.

A title game loss does not a cleaned house make. Oregon’s final No. 2 AP ranking ties the 2001 and 2012 teams for its highest ever.

The Ducks’ 3-4 defense and uptempo spread offense won so many games (a school-record 13) and in such dominating fashion (a 27.3-point average margin of victory) and with so many stars who will return in 2015 — running back Royce Freeman, the deep offensive line and linebacker Joe Walker are a few — that the Ducks aren’t expected to react hastily to Monday’s loss, even as “gutting” as it was to Helfrich.

“It’s always focused on tonight, there were a lot of great nights and great days with these guys that led up to tonight and caused tonight, and at some point we’ll be able to relish those,” Helfrich said after the loss. “I don’t know when that happens anymore. But yeah, it’s a tough, 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.”

— Andrew Greif
agreif@oregonian.com
503-221-8100
@andrewgreif

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