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Morbid thoughts on a painful loss, and an invitation to buck up

Maybe it’s an ironic measure of how far this program has come that some of the players overlooked the USC Trojans.

Josh Huff said they were celebrating in the hallways of the hotel Friday night after Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, giddy after having number two in the country and a chance at the national championship handed to them by the courage and determination of a 5-4 football team.

They forgot one thing.

(photo left: Oregon joined Boise State as victims of a missed field goal at the end of the game, ending their run at the national championship. Other worthy goals remain. Photo by Thomas Boyd of oregonlive.com)

Losing is the most painful way to be reminded of what winning demands of you.

The Ducks missed a kick at the end of the game, but it shouldn’t have come down to that. Errors in execution throughout the game, including three costly turnovers, a blocked punt, misfired passes and disastrous one-on-one matchups in the secondary, dug an awful hole that a furious rally didn’t quite overcome.

Chip Kelly has elevated the Oregon program to a magnificent level, but he and his staff were outcoached last night. The team wasn’t prepared properly in attitude, scheme or execution, and they mismanaged the clock at the end of the game.

Darron Thomas’ limitations and failure to grow as a quarterback plagued the Oregon Ducks in this game. He lacks mobility in the pocket, struggles with mechanics and consistency, and becomes erratic under pressure. His long throwing motion remains an invitation to disaster in a collapsing pocket, and he hasn’t developed the awareness or presence to sense when that happens, lacks the instinct or the quickness to take off and create something or salvage a play with a scramble.

Thomas has led Oregon to 22 wins and a conference title, but this was a night they most missed the mobility and improvisational skills of Dennis Dixon and Jeremiah Masoli. The Oregon spread is more dangerous when the quarterback is a dual threat weapon the defense has to account for. Dixon and Masoli could exploit an opponent even on plays they did everything right. Thomas can’t. He’s a point guard without an outside shot, who can’t break down a defender off the dribble. So he has to distribute with keen effectiveness to win. He didn’t last night. He missed open guys or threw them passes that merely got them to the foul line.

He has to play better in big games. He has to lead better, and take a leap forward in his maturity and command, or Oregon will be 10-2 again in his senior year. Or Bryan Bennett might take his job.

USC and Matt Barkley played better and they deserved to win. The image of Barkley leading the Trojan band at the end of the game burns the retinas of my imagination. He earned the moment, exploiting matchup advantages against the Oregon secondary.

Losing stinks.

The Ducks still have an opportunity ahead of them to make this a very rewarding season. A win over Oregon State caps a 10-2 regular season and the opportunity to host the first PAC-12 Championship Game. Right now UCLA leads, but the race in the PAC-12 South is a muddle of tiebreakers and what-ifs. Someone will advance, and they’ll have to come to Autzen Stadium to face what should be a hungry, focused team bent on finishing strong.

First, though, the Ducks and their coaches have to figure out a way to stop a quarterback with a hot hand. Sean Mannion and his receivers, who carved up Washington for 329 yards and two touchdowns in pacing a 38-21 victory, will save the game of their lives for the Webfoots. The Ducks should be able to get more pressure on Mannion, however, who doesn’t enjoy an offensive line like USC’s.

Darron Thomas, LaMichael James, the Oregon defense, and the Oregon fans have to reclaim Autzen Stadium. Time to start a new streak, and make six weeks of focused effort to win the school’s first Rose Bowl Trophy in nearly a hundred years.

What was lost was never theirs. This isn’t the year they’ll remake their national reputation or silence the ESPN and SEC dismissals. But they can finish in the Top Ten and win a BCS bowl. Next year, they can contend for all the big prizes, provided they commit themselves. National Championships are won in February, March, June and July. They start with leadership. If the Ducks want to end their remarkable run with the ultimate dream, they’ll have to be ready to pay the price to make it come true.

LaMichael James’ Heisman campaign ended with a disastrous fumble on the USC ten yard line. But De’Anthony Thomas launched a future run at The Stiff Arm Trophy with another brilliant game.

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