ARLINGTON, Texas » Marcus Mariota’s season ended without the honor that mattered to him most. Now Oregon waits to see if he will be back for another try.
Going into Monday night’s game against Ohio State, the standout junior quarterback said he would trade the Heisman Trophy he won this season for a national championship because the team honor was more important to him. Instead, the Buckeyes bottled up Mariota and overpowered the Ducks for a 42-20 victory in the first College Football Playoff championship.
It may have been Mariota’s final game at Oregon. He has until Thursday to decide if he will skip his senior season and declare for the NFL draft. Mariota, who has already completed his degree, is expected to be a top pick.
Did the devastating loss change his mind about coming back?
"I’m sure it will weigh in a little bit, but there’s a lot of other things that have to play into that decision," he said. "There’s starting grad school, coming back for another year to improve, there’s a lot of other things that could bring me back. It’s just not specifically this loss."
Despite the loss, the soft-spoken, lead-by-example team leader had a stellar season.
In addition to the Heisman, Mariota was named AP Player of the Year and the Pac-12’s offensive player of the year and a slew of other awards.
He set conference records for most touchdowns in a single season with 58. He had 42 via pass, 15 on the run and a touchdown catch. He has also set the conference mark for career touchdowns with 134. He has also thrown at least one touchdown pass in all 41 games he has started in his career, the second-longest streak in NCAA history behind Marshall’s Rakeem Cato (46). And he’s one of four quarterbacks in FBS history to pass for more than 10,000 yards and run for more than 2,000 in his career.
Not that any of that mattered much to Mariota on this night.
"My main focus was to be a great teammate. That’s all I hoped to accomplish," he said. "I don’t care about legacies."
All season his bold moves on the field belied his shy demeanor off it. Against Wyoming he flipped into the end zone for a touchdown, and against Arizona he caught a touchdown pass from running back Royce Freeman.
"The impact he’s had on the field is extremely significant," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "Off the field, probably even bigger."
But Mariota faced challenges against Ohio State.
Oregon’s receiver corps was hit earlier in the week when redshirt freshman Darren Carrington was declared ineligible for the game because of a failed NCAA drug test. Carrington did not travel to Texas for the biggest game of the season. The team had already lost freshman receiver Devon Allen, who also runs on Oregon’s track team, on the opening kickoff of the Ducks’ 59-20 victory over Florida State in the Rose Bowl.
Junior tight end Pharaoh Brown had six touchdown passes for the Ducks this season before he sustained a season-ending knee injury against Utah. And before the season started, junior receiver Bralon Addison tore a ligament in his left knee.
That left Oregon, which regularly uses three- and four-receiver formations, with just Dwayne Stanford, Keanon Lowe, Charles Nelson and converted running back Byron Marshall.
While Mariota found Lowe on Oregon’s opening drive with a 7-yard touchdown pass, both Nelson and Stanford dropped third-down passes in the first half and the Ducks trailed 21-10.
He seemed to find more of a groove with his receivers as the game wore on, hitting Marshall with a 70-yard scoring pass to close the gap to 21-17 in the third quarter. Oregon got closer with Aiden Schneider’s 23-yard field goal.
Ezekiel Elliott answered the threat with a pair of rushing touchdown to put Ohio State up 35-20 and Oregon couldn’t catch up.
"It’s tough. It happens. It’s a part of football," Mariota said about the injuries. "But I thought that the guys who played stepped up and made plays."
Mariota found ways all season to overcome injuries. Oregon’s best offensive lineman, tackle Tyler Johnstone, injured his knee before the season started and was done for the year. Fellow O-linemen Andre Yruretagoyena and Jake Fisher also missed games and running back Thomas Tyner was hampered by shoulder and ankle issues.
With the exception of the lone loss this season to Arizona, the Ducks kept winning thanks to the dual-threat quarterback’s savvy and elusiveness.
But ultimately it wasn’t enough against the bigger and stronger Buckeyes. Mariota finished with 333 yards passing and two touchdowns and his final attempt of the game was an interception when the game was out of reach.
"This is a family. I’m truly grateful for all of them. And everything that we’ve accomplished this season, it says a lot about these guys," Mariota said. "I feel truly blessed."
Oregon has never won a national championship. The Ducks’ last appearance in the title game was following the 2010 season, when Mariota was a senior at St. Louis High School in Honolulu. Oregon fell to Auburn 22-19.