ARLINGTON, Texas — The season’s final play began as they all seemed to do in this most charmed year to be an Oregon Duck.

Four yards behind center, Marcus Mariota received the snap and dodged two tacklers with a ballerina’s grace, pirouetting into open space and possibility.

Mariota squared his shoulders, lofted a pass 40 yards into the dome of AT&T Stadium and let it rip. How many plays looked this bad to start before, and how many times did they get added to his highlight reel afterward, anyway?

But it was all window dressing on a night long since decided against their favor.

Well before Mariota jogged back out on one last series, stadium workers in black pullovers positioned confetti cannons behind each sideline. All the final pass did, once it was intercepted by Ohio State’s Eli Apple, was make it official: The first College Football Playoff ended with second-ranked Oregon seeing scarlet red, beaten 42-20 by a fourth-ranked Ohio State team that staged a master class in how to own a moment.

“This team,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said, “wasn’t supposed to do this.”

Oregon was.

Stocked with a roster brimming with talent and a reservoir of resiliency, the Ducks possessed a MacGyver-like knack for digging themselves out of holes and emerging with hope — or at least a first down. They entered Monday with six missing starters but nine straight wins.

Down 21-10 at halftime, few blinked.

And when Danny Mattingly intercepted Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones in the third quarter, and Oregon scored on the very next play on a 70-yard touchdown reception between Mariota and Byron Marshall, few were surprised. The Ducks forced a fumble on the next possession and kicked a field goal to cut the deficit to one, and the chase was on.

Four times the Ducks trailed at halftime this season, and three times they came back to win. Like Mariota, they made wriggling out of the impossible an art in 2014.

But two hours later, they trudged off the field under golden streamers shot 100 feet high because that precedent meant little against Ohio State (14-1). For not once this season had the Ducks (13-2) faced a back like Ezekiel Elliott, the Buckeye who rushed for a championship-record 246 yards and four touchdowns and smushed the Ducks’ title hopes in a bruising second half.

“It’s unfortunate 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,” said head coach Mark Helfrich, now 24-4 in two seasons. “As I told the guys in the locker room, that will never exist in these guys’ vocabulary. Every player to a T has just battled and gutted this out.”

After capitalizing on Ohio State’s own mistakes and four turnovers — Jones was intercepted once, and fumbled twice — to keep itself in the game, it was Oregon’s own errors that ultimately ended the season many will remember with a night the Ducks cannot wait to forget. They were 2-of-12 on third down and 0-of-2 on fourth down, including being stuffed on a goal-line stand when a handoff to Thomas Tyner was one yard short of the end zone.

Twice in the first quarter, critical drops by Charles Nelson and Dwayne Stanford put airbrakes on Oregon’s runaway tempo.

The Ducks also committed 10 penalties and punted four times in the first quarter — their most in the opening 15 minutes since 2009. Starting for the first time since Sept. 13, Tyner rushed for 62 yards. Marshall hauled in a game-high 169 yards. But it wasn’t enough. The Ducks are 0-9 all-time against Ohio State and 0-4 under Helfrich when scoring fewer than 30 points.

And it ended in twisted, uncharacteristic fashion, with Mariota throwing only the 14th interception of his career in 1,167 attempts.

“Wanting to put the right finishing touch on it and that not happening is gutting to me, for them,” Helfrich said. “But yeah, this was an unbelievable journey.”

It’s even moreso an incredible achievement for Ohio State, which won despite leaning on a third-string quarterback many thought was too immature to capitalize on the gifts of his prodigiously strong arm and huge, 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame, for the past three games. But for all of his costly turnovers, Jones was a force the Ducks rarely could pin down as Ohio State roared back for 21 unanswered points en route to a title.

On third-and-three in the third quarter, he ran over 300-pound nose tackle Alex Balducci for the first down on a drive that gave the Buckeyes a 28-20 lead. Meanwhile, Mariota, his Heisman counterpart, passed for 333 yards and two touchdowns and became the first Pac-12 player ever to rack up 5,000 yards of offense in a single season. If this was his final game in an Oregon uniform, he ended it with a passing touchdown in all 41 of his games.

But he was never quite able to manufacture the explosive plays that pushed him, and the Ducks, to college football’s forefront this season. The senior class that began its career with a loss in a national championship game bookended it with heartbreak once again.

“I’m just sorry we came up a little short,” Mariota said.

There remains a sliver of possibility that he will return for his senior season. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is Thursday. Afterward, Mariota spoke of possibly entering graduate school, and getting better with a team that will have the pieces to get back to another playoff.

But they won’t get back Monday evening.

— Andrew Greif
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503-221-8100
@andrewgreif

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