After losing to Ohio State in the national championship, will the Ducks be able to make it back in 2015?

ARLINGTON, Texas — The billionaire smiled. This was pregame, on the sidelines at AT&T Stadium. Phil Knight seemed relaxed and comfortable in his customary black sports coat, black T-shirt, black jeans, black cap. And confident, too, that for Oregon, the second crack at a national championship would be better.

“It feels a little different,” Knight said. “The first time, you’re really excited to be there. But this time, you kind of feel like you belong.”

After a 42-20 loss to Ohio State, that’s again up for debate. Four years ago, Oregon’s first time, Auburn kicked a field goal in the final seconds of the BCS championship game to break a tie. On Monday night, Ohio State punched out an exclamation point — Ezekiel Elliott, 3 yards, touchdown — with 28 seconds left in the inaugural College Football Playoff championship game to punctuate a dominant victory.

Although the last score was gratuitous, the final margin was not deceptive. Ohio State bludgeoned Oregon. Did the Ducks belong? Depends on what that means.

The program’s stature is not in question. With no small investment by Knight, Nike’s founder, Oregon has risen to rank among college football’s elites.

In the last six seasons, the Ducks have played in four BCS/New Year’s Six bowls, winning three, and in those two national championship games. In the Rose Bowl, they blitzed the defending national champions by 39 points, ending Florida State’s 29-game winning streak and advancing to the championship game.

Yet, something’s still lacking. On Monday, an old perception was again harsh reality. For all its fast, fun flash, Oregon isn’t fashioned to compete with big, strong, physical opponents. At least, not at the highest levels.

“That narrative is played out,” senior receiver Keanon Lowe objected. “I think we just got beat by a good team. To say that we can’t beat a physical team is calling the whole Pac-12 soft. It’s just stupid.”

And he added: “Florida State, to say they weren’t physical is ridiculous.”

He’s right, though there was so much else going on with the Seminoles. All season, that circus bordered on ridiculous, which is why despite Oregon’s dominant display in a Playoff semifinal on New Year’s Day, it might not be the best example to prove the point.

And then that narrative played out on a bigger stage, when Ohio State was bigger, stronger and just as fast. The Buckeyes pounded away for 296 rushing yards, with 246 coming from Elliott, and pulled away by wearing down the Ducks’ defense late. That “soft” label they hate so much isn’t going away until they win a national title. But has that window snapped shut?

“There’s a belief that this program will be back sooner rather than later,” Lowe said, and Oregon coach Mark Helfrich pronounced himself “extremely confident” and said “everything is in place” for a return to the championship game.

But if Marcus Mariota jumps to the NFL, as expected — and if the Heisman Trophy winner, a fourth-year junior, seriously considers remaining in school another year, someone in authority at Oregon should tell him to reconsider, for his own sake — the program seems certain to take a few steps back. This was the Ducks’ best shot, at least in the short term, to win it all. As it turned out, they weren’t built strong enough.

Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly was on the sidelines before the game, too. It was the first time he’d been able to watch the Ducks in person since moving on to the NFL not quite two years ago. The Philadelphia Eagles coach, who’s also close with Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, offered reasons the Oregon program was in a better, more mature place than in recent years.

“They’ve been here,” Kelly said. “They’ve had so much experience. Four BCS games in a row, been to a national championship (game) before.”

And then Kelly played the trump card: “When you have (No.) 8 at quarterback? I think that makes you better, too.”

Mariota undoubtedly made Oregon better; he might have masked the Ducks’ deficiencies. Against Ohio State, it wasn’t enough. Although he threw for 333 yards and two touchdowns, Mariota did not block or tackle. When his teammates struggled to do both, it was reminiscent of several other high-profile losses during Oregon’s recent past.

Three years ago, after a loss to LSU in the 2011 season opener – in the same stadium as Monday, and only months after that 22-19 loss to Auburn in the BCS title game – Kelly was candid about what separated the Ducks from college football’s elite teams.

“They’ve got a little bit different athlete running around out there now,” Kelly told reporters that day, referring to LSU. “Looking at their D-line, standing next to them, walking off the field, they don’t look like the kind of guys we see. That’s the common trait, the trait you saw in the Auburn game.”

We saw it Monday, too – though it was more of a surprise this time.

In the last few years, though speed remained the priority, Oregon had turned its recruiting and developmental focus toward getting bigger, stronger, and tougher in order to compete when things got physical. This season, with victories over Michigan State and Stanford, and then the rout of defending Florida State in the Rose Bowl, the Ducks seemed to have forever shed that “soft” label. Mariota was the catalyst, and he was surrounded as always by fast company, but they also seemed different, tougher than in the past.

“We beat all the teams they said we couldn’t beat, that they would out-physical us,” senior safety Erick Dargan said.

Except Ohio State.

Yes, it could have been different. Oregon started very fast, moving effortlessly downfield for a quick touchdown. The Ducks’ next two possessions were stopped not by the Buckeyes but when wide-open receivers dropped passes. Catch those, and who knows what happens? But momentum shifted. Ohio State took control.

Midway through the third quarter, Oregon had collected four turnovers, and yet trailed 21-20. Oregon is known for explosive second halves, that fast pace finally taking hold, wearing down opponents — boom! But the opposite occurred.

Oregon ran only seven plays in the third quarter. One was a 70-yard touchdown pass, Mariota to Byron Marshall. The other six resulted in a field goal, which pulled the Ducks within a point. But Ohio State answered with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that took almost seven minutes, then a nine-play, 76-yard drive that chewed up another four minutes. Oregon’s defense wilted. The Ducks’ offense couldn’t keep up.

“You could tell starting in the second half, even though we turned the ball over, we were wearing them down,” Ohio State offensive tackle Darryl Baldwin said.

And Baldwin added: “That’s how we base everything on, our toughness. And they’re based on their speed.”

Which Ohio State more than matched. Oregon didn’t match up with the Buckeyes’ brute force. And so the Ducks are left to answer the same old questions about the same old shortcoming.

“It’s unfortunate,” Helfrich said, “and a little bit insulting in a lot of ways that whoever loses this game, the word ‘failure’ comes up as a descriptive for the season.”

It’s more than a little bit insulting to the Ducks that they’ll be tagged, again, as a program that Can’t Win the Big One. But until they beat the biggest, strongest boys, it’ll stick.

This season, they overcame a long list of injuries to reach the championship game. They beat Michigan State and Stanford. They ended Florida State’s long run. Over the last five seasons, Oregon has won plenty — the Ducks are 60-8 — and accomplished about as much as any program not named Alabama.

“Oregon has built a pedigree over the past several years that will remain in the future,” junior defensive lineman Arik Armstead said.

No argument; the Ducks are built to last. But are they built to win the last, biggest game against the biggest boys?

“You lose a game,” Lowe said, “and I guess people will still ask that same question – and it’s ridiculous.”

But on the biggest stage, it was again reality. Oregon belongs. But the perception does, too.



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