Oregon looks to add to statement season
Within moments after winning the Rose Bowl for a spot in the national championship, the T-shirts were up on Oregon’s website.
“Won Not Done,” the shirts read.
The sentiment — also on tees made for opponent Ohio State — was perfect for the Ducks, who are a win away from proving once and for all that they belong among the nation’s elite. It’s a position they’ve been in once before, when they faced Auburn for the national title to cap the 2010 season and came up short.
“We’ve still got to finish this. We’re one step closer to achieving everything we ever worked for, everything we ever wanted,” senior linebacker Derrick Malone Jr. said.
Oregon has never won a national championship. The Buckeyes have seven national titles dating back to 1942.
Just a decade ago, the Ducks finished the season 5-6 but they’d flirted with national prominence in 2001 when quarterback Joey Harrington helped lead Oregon to the Fiesta Bowl.
Then Chip Kelly arrived in Eugene in 2007 and reworked Oregon’s offense into a distinctive high-flying spread. Since then, the speedy Ducks have been consistently ranked.
Kelly was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach before the 2009 season and the next year the Ducks went 12-1 and first played for the title. Oregon fell to Auburn 22-19 on Wes Bynum’s 19-yard field goal as time expired.
Afterward Kelly vowed, “We’ll be back.”
Kelly’s successor, Mark Helfrich, made good on the promise: Here the second-seeded Ducks are, following a 59-20 victory over Florida State in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State defeated Alabama 42-35 in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans later Thursday night.
The loss in college football’s first-ever playoffs snapped a 29-game winning streak by the third-seeded Seminoles, and Oregon emphasized its dominance by piling up the most points ever scored in a Rose Bowl game. It was quarterback Jameis Winston’s first — and maybe only, if he decides to go to the NFL — college loss.
“They were undefeated the last two years, and I mean just that in itself says a lot about what they’ve been able to do. Coming in, we didn’t focus on that,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “We just wanted to focus on ourselves and really just trying to execute to the best of our abilities.”
But in the midst of the game, Oregon also took a huge step in changing the national perception of the Ducks — shoving aside the image of a gimmicky team with a multitude of uniforms that could never stand up to the defending national champion.
“I hope they keep saying they (the Ducks) are soft, because it just motivates our guys,” offensive coordinator Scott Frost said.
Mariota is the personification of Oregon’s ascent, becoming the first Duck to win the Heisman Trophy.
He has an ongoing conference record with 40 touchdown passes this season. He’s also passed for a touchdown in each of his 40 games of his college career — the longest streak in FBS history.
The junior from Hawaii, who opted at the end of last season to stay at Oregon, has 56 total touchdowns this season. Along with his 40 via pass, he’s also run for 15 scores and caught a TD pass. He’s the first FBS-level player to pass for 40 and run for 15.
Never one to put the focus on himself, Mariota was grateful for the opportunity to add to the team’s legacy with a shot at the title.
“All the hard work, all the stuff that we put into it during the offseason and for it to kind of pay off and allow us to be a part of this game, it’s a great feeling,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to be a part of it, and we’re excited to get going and get prepared for it.”