EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — When the Oregon Ducks look back at their lone loss of the season, sure there’s lingering disappointment, but not a lot of second-guessing.
Instead, some players have pointed to the Arizona loss as the turning point of their season, when they woke up and revived for their march to the national championship.
“I think we learned a lot in terms of having that loss early in the year and kind of experiencing failure a little bit,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said a few games afterward. “Now that we have had our backs against the wall, guys feel the need to fight, play loose and play with high intensity.”
Lesson learned, Oregon will play for the national title next Monday night against Ohio State in Arlington, Texas. The second-seeded Ducks (13-1) defeated Florida State in college football’s first playoffs to advance, while the fourth-seeded Buckeyes (13-1) upset Alabama.
Back in early October, Oregon was undefeated and ranked second in The Associated Press poll. The Ducks were boosted by a key victory earlier in the season over Michigan State and looking to avoid the pitfalls that had thwarted them the season before, when late-season losses against Arizona and Stanford took them out of a BCS bowl game for the first time since 2008.
The Wildcats were also undefeated, but unranked and 24-point underdogs. And the game was at Autzen Stadium, where the Ducks hadn’t lost since 2012.
Oregon led 7-3 at halftime before Arizona freshman Nick Wilson ran for a pair of touchdowns and caught another to build a 24-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Ducks rallied with a field goal and Mariota’s touchdown pass to Keanon Lowe to tie the game with 8:21 left.
With Arizona driving downfield, Tony Washington was called for unsportsmanlike conduct to give the Wildcats a first down. Then a pass interference call paved the way for Terris Jones-Grigsby’s go-ahead 1-yard touchdown.
On Oregon’s ensuing series, Mariota was sacked and stripped of the ball by Scooby Wright, giving the Wildcats the 31-24 win.
Afterward, senior cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who decided to stay at Oregon for a final year in part to give a national championship one more shot, was the voice of reason.
“Every loss is a test of our character to see how we respond. Not every team in college football is going to go undefeated so everyone has to learn from their losses and get better,” he said.
There was talk that Mariota hadn’t been 100 percent in the loss, which he shrugged off as “typical football stuff.” In the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback’s typical even-keel style, a week afterward he — and the rest of the Ducks — had refocused.
“There’s no sense of panic or anything like that,” Mariota said at the time. “I think guys are understanding we’ve just got to take it one game at a time.”
Taking that cue from their unquestioned leader, it was a sentiment the Ducks carried through the rest of the season.
“The loss was a big part of it. That’s not something that we do, so we just reassessed everything, went back to the drawing boards and came back more physical. We were able to bounce back and knew we had to play more physical and play a lot harder than we have been,” running back Byron Marshall said.
On Monday, the Ducks held a media day back home in Eugene, where they’ll practice before heading to the Dallas area on Friday in preparation for the title game.
Coach Mark Helfrich was asked about the Arizona loss, and how the Ducks overcame that disappointment. He chalked it up to the process.
“We believe very much in what we’re doing. Our guys believe very much in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Helfrich said. “There’s always — from the media’s perspective or the fans’ perspective — second-guessing. In our world that’s evaluation.
“You go back and evaluate why something happened. And you fix it.”
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