ARLINGTON, Texas -- Thomas Tyner sat in front of his locker in a sleeveless Nike undershirt with a white Oregon cap pulled low over his forehead. His eye black was smeared in dark streaks across his face, and he wiggled his knees while fielding questions from a small circle of reporters. Outside, perhaps a few hundred yards away, Ohio State was celebrating a 42-20 victory and its first national title since 2002. But the Ducks back was here, discussing how it felt to be second best.
“It’s tough and disappointing,” Tyner said. “But this team is something special. It’s a brotherhood. Everyone saw it. The way we didn’t stop playing. The hunger in us.”
Before we get into specifics, let’s make something perfectly clear: Despite losing on Monday night, Oregon has nothing to be ashamed of. After falling to Arizona 31-24 on Oct. 2, the Ducks ripped off nine consecutive wins, including victories in the Pac-12 title game and the Rose Bowl. They overcame a virtual avalanche of injuries -- to linemen Jake Fisher and Tyler Johnstone, to pass-catchers Pharaoh Brown and Devon Allen, to cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and countless other stars -- and accomplished more than any other Oregon team has. They were good, possibly even great, but not quite great enough. And now their best chance to capture a national championship may have come and gone.
During the course of the last decade, Oregon has continually defied the odds. It rose from the middle of the Pac-10 to the forefront of college football, with its brand and tempo invoking fear from Tempe to Tallahassee. It shed disparaging labels along the way: Too soft. Style over substance. Will never be able to replace Chip Kelly. In 2014, the Ducks even produced the runaway Heisman Trophy winner, star quarterback Marcus Mariota, who regularly made defenders look as foolish as someone trying to swat a fly with a toothpick.
Yet in Arlington it still wasn’t enough. Oregon came up one game short of a national title for the second time in five seasons. So, the program is left to wonder: If not now, when?
“It is tough to see us lose, especially for these older guys,” freshman wide receiver Charles Nelson said. “They’ve been here for a couple years and just to see their faces and their reactions to this is just sad.”
Everything began so promising Monday night. The Ducks flew out of the gates, using 11 plays to travel 75 yards for a touchdown in less than three minutes. They forced Ohio State to punt a few minutes later and soon pinned the Buckeyes within their own five-yard line. But then Oregon began to waddle. Ohio State drove 97 yards for a touchdown. Then it scored again and stuffed Oregon on a fourth-and-goal from just shy of the goal line. Then Ezekiel Elliott turned into a scarlet-and-gray version of the Incredible Hulk and manhandled the Ducks again and again, until their hopes were dashed and he had 246 yards with four touchdowns.
There were plenty of times Oregon couldn’t stop Ohio State -- on third-and-eight, fourth-and-two, third-and-nine and third-and-12 -- that ultimately proved costly. There were two dropped passes, by Nelson and Dwayne Stanford, which could’ve extended drives and changed the tenor of the game. But the takeaway is Oregon had its chance, maybe its best chance, and failed to take advantage. Now it will have to get to this point another time, which is far from certain. There will be questions, and lots of them.
Chief among those: How will the Ducks replace Mariota, assuming he declares for the 2015 NFL draft, where he is projected as a top-five pick? How will they replace center Hroniss Grasu, or linebacker Tony Washington, or Ekpre-Olomu? How will they respond to coming oh-so-close -- like they have so many times in the past -- but not attaining their goal?
Maybe those are the right questions, and maybe not. But they’ll continue to be asked, since Ohio State is the champ and Oregon’s window has gotten smaller.
Could the labels come back? Yes, though these Ducks aren’t sweating them.
“We’re not soft,” Stanford said. “We’re a physical team. Today Ohio State was the better team. But I think that soft word can be put to bed as far as Oregon goes.”
Could the West Coast power continue unimpeded? Yes, but that won’t be easy.
“Everything is in place from a support standpoint and facilities standpoint and infrastructure standpoint,” head coach Mark Helfrich said. “Our coaching is outstanding, and the leadership is outstanding. That’s kind of all the ingredients.”
Should this team be proud of everything it accomplished over the last five months, even though the season ended on a bitter note? Absolutely.
“We just kept proving people wrong all season long, and we came one short,” Grasu said. “We’re not gonna hang our heads at all. This season has been an unbelievable season.”
But another year has passed, and Oregon was in the biggest, ritziest stadium in the nation with transcendence in its reach and couldn’t grasp it. Rather, it’s left to ponder the two most haunting words in the English language: What if?
In a few days, the focus will turn to recruiting, and National Signing Day, and the next step for the Ducks’ program. Then will come spring, and the quest to make the College Football Playoff will begin anew. But on Monday night, Oregon was forced to sit a few hundred yards from glory, with one eye to the past and one to future.
“Don’t give up on us, even though we lost,” Tyner said. “We’ll be back.”