Ducks unbeaten season goes wide right, 17-14

Saturday night, it rained in Autzen Stadium.

For the second November in a row the Ducks’ hope of a second appearance in the national championship game ended with missed field goals, missed blocks and loose footballs that bounced the other way.

Stanford’s defensive front didn’t need a replay review to defeat Oregon at the line of scrimmage. The Ducks, now 51-7 in the Chip Kelly era, lost in a way that followed the pattern of previous losses. A quick, physical front seven frustrated the Oregon running game and destroyed their offensive tempo.

Their vaunted spread offense never got untracked, held to just 14 points as tailback Kenjon Barner met a wall of Stanford defenders on carry after carry, held to just 66 yards on 21 tries. For the first time this season Marcus Mariota looked like a redshirt freshman, rushed and harrassed as passes sailed high, long throws didn’t come close to connecting, and he passed up chances to run for positive yards while being chased to the sideline and running out of room.

Images from the game will haunt Duck fans like a mixed drink hangover well into Tuesday. De’Anthony Thomas runs alongside Mariota on a 79-yard sprint that seemed destined for the end zone, if only DAT gets in the way of the last Stanford defender. Alejandro Maldonado’s third quarter field goal donks off the left upright. Two critical replay reviews played out like revenge of the 2006 Oklahoma Schooners, a ball squirting off The Cardinal punt returner’s rib cage as his knee goes down, and superb Cardinal tight end Zach Erst pinballing the football on his chest as his shoulder grazes the end line. Michael Clay, who has played like a warrior for four seasons and made an inspired 20 tackles Saturday night, had an overtime fumble bounce out of his grasp.

The Ducks aren’t used to playing in close games, and it showed. Their timing and rhythm got a little glitchy. Stanford made fewer errors and kept their poise, playing determined, smashmouth football and dictating the style of the game.

On Oregon’s last offensive play in overtime, Josh Huff broke inside while Mariota threw to the corner. Then Maldonado missed a second 40-plus field goal, wide right by about a yard.

Perfect seasons are lost in just that way.

The Ducks still have a possibility for hosting the PAC-12 Championship game and competing for their fourth straight conference title, but they’ll need to rally for a win over the Beavers in Corvallis while hoping Stanford loses against UCLA at the Rose Bowl.

In a few weeks, Chip Kelly may bolt for the NFL and the NCAA could announce a decision in the Will Lyles investigation. Just this Tuesday an SEC-sized offensive lineman, 6-4, 290-lb. Alex Redmond from Los Alamitos, California, decommited from the Ducks to consider other opportunities. The Ducks reign of success, their open window to the biggest prize, might be endangered by a cold drizzle of unfavorable outcomes, replay reviews of fate.

The Webfoots still have a verbal commitment from Max Wogan, a kicker from Porterville, North Carolina rated #2 in the country. He blasted a 56-yarder through the uprights in a high school game this October, and 46 of 49 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks.

The Ducks only two conference losses in the last two seasons came down to missed kicks. Wogan will be a welcome sight in an Oregon uniform, provided they can make adjustments and improvements elsewhere.

With the lack of a natural recruiting base, the reality of a dreary climate in a small college town, and a donor pool heavily dependent on the largess of Nike and Phil Knight, the proverbial window can’t remain open forever. Eventually the Ducks are likely to return to 5-7/6-6/7-5 and the hope of an occasional special season, a fall that will delight envious fans of the other schools here in the Northwest. Hiring the right coach to replace the inevitably departing Kelly will be a crucial step. Unpiling the wreckage wrought by a Lyles decision will be another.

Ask the USC Trojan fans how feels to return to mediocrity, and cope with the collapse of outsized expectations. College football is a wonderful game painted rich with passion, tradition and color, and sometimes it’s a life lesson on fallen empires and deflated schemes.