Oregon did not have two of its top receivers for the national championship game, and the result was an uneven performance out of that group Monday night.
Byron Marshall caught a 70-yard pass for a touchdown, and Keanon Lowe caught a short touchdown pass in the first quarter.
But two drops in the first half cost the Ducks two drives, and Charles Nelson’s slip out of a route on a third down caused quarterback Marcus Mariota to look another direction on a failed third-down conversion.
Oregon was playing without one its leading receiver, Darren Carrington, and its fastest receiver, Devon Allen. Carrington missed the game because he was ineligible following a positive drug test, and Allen got hurt on the opening kickoff in the Rose Bowl against Florida State.
“It’s tough to lose those guys, but I felt that the guys who did play stepped up and made plays,” Mariota said. “We rotate so many receivers, each guy has a lot of experience and was prepared to play.”
The Ducks got Lowe back from injury in time for the Rose Bowl, and Dwayne Stanford returned to the lineup after missing part of the season with injuries. But Stanford had one of the biggest misplays of the game, a dropped pass as he backpedaled near the sideline. It would have been a first down and kept a drive alive with the game tied 7-7. Instead, the Ducks punted, and Ohio State drove for a 14-7 lead.
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich remained optimistic that the Ducks, trying to win their first national championship, will get another chance.
“Everything is in place that it can happen. It has happened,” he said. “The infrastructure is in place. The leadership is in place.”
Oregon, which lost the BCS championship game in January 2011 to Auburn, returned to the title game in the first year of the playoff era, defeating Florida State in the Rose Bowl semifinal.
“Whoever loses this game, the word ‘failure’ comes up as a descriptive for the season. The way these guys persevered, that will never be used with this program,” Helfrich said.
Marcus Mariota, who threw for 333 yards and two touchdowns, said he has not decided whether to declare for the NFL Draft.
“I will take the next couple of days with my family and make my decision,” he said.
Mariota missed one play in the fourth quarter after being shaken up, and he finished the game with a last-ditch interception. He said he didn’t care about legacy he leaves at Oregon, if he decides to go pro.
“That’s other people’s opinion,” he said. “My main focus was to be a great teammate. That’s all I hoped to accomplish. I don’t really care about legacies.”
Helfrich, asked his opinion of Mariota’s legacy, said, “I love this guy and will forever. Absolutely couldn’t be luckier to coach him and be around him every day.”
Oregon ranked 82nd in the country in third-down defense this year, allowing a 41.6 percent conversion rate, and it proved to be a weak point.
Ohio State converted five of eight opportunities on third down in the first half, one reason it had a 21-10 lead at halftime. The conversions included a third-and-12 in the second quarter, on a 45-yard throw on the run by Cardale Jones, that set up Jones’ 1-yard touchdown sneak, also on third down.
In a third-quarter drive that produced a 28-20 lead, the Buckeyes converted twice in short yardage on third down.
In the second quarter, trailing 14-7, Oregon decided to try for a touchdown instead of taking a short field goal.
But on fourth-and-goal from the 3, Thomas Tyner was stopped a half-yard short of the goal line by Ohio State’s Vonn Bell and Adolphus Washington.
The gamble almost cost double, as Ohio State moved the ball into Oregon territory with a big play, Corey Smith’s 47-yard catch and run. But cornerback Troy Hill knocked the ball out, giving Oregon the ball back with a chance to drive to try and again tie the game.
Instead, the Ducks went three-and-out, and Ohio State scored for a 21-7 lead. The sequence changed the complexion of the first half.
The Ducks forced four turnovers by the middle of the second half against Ohio State, which had suffered only 22 giveaways in 14 games coming in.
None had more impact than Danny Mattingly’s interception and Jones’ fumble. The Ducks took advantage of the interception by scoring in one play, a 70-yard touchdown pass, to cut the lead to 21-17, and the fumble recovery led to a field goal that cut the lead to 21-20.
Oregon had forced 30 turnovers in 14 games coming in.
▪ Oregon had won three straight games in Texas and is now 6-5 in the state.
▪ The Ducks had to punt three times in the first quarter for the first time since 2009.
▪ Mariota was trying to become the 25th player to win a Heisman Trophy and play on the national championship team.
Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7760