Many thought I was giving in to my rooting interests when I picked the Oregon Ducks to win by 17 on New Year’s Day. Instead the reality of my present enrollment in Eugene led me to undersell the team, as my prediction fell three touchdowns (and a two-point conversion) shy of the final margin of victory. Not even Mark Helfrich himself could have foreseen such a dominant performance by Oregon on New Year’s Day.
In a duel between the two most recent Heisman winners, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena with a national championship berth as the stakes, neither player was perfect. But despite his flaws on Thursday, Marcus Mariota clearly outplayed Jameis Winston in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains. The Oregon defense flustered Winston and the Florida State offense, forcing five turnovers that led to 35 Duck points in a runaway 59-20 victory. The win sends the Ducks to Arlington, Texas, for a chance at the first College Football Playoff national championship on January 12.
Mariota finished with 400 total yards of offense (26-of-36 for 338 passing yards, eight carries for 62 yards), with two touchdowns through the air and one on the ground to atone for just his third interception of the season. The offensive player of the game accounted for at least three touchdowns for the seventh straight game and his 12th time this season, ratcheting up the pressure on the Seminoles with each score.
Still, the game was just 18-13 at halftime, as Karlos Williams scored for Florida State with less than a minute left in the second quarter to pull the defending national champions within a touchdown of the Pac-12 champions at the intermission. Jimbo Fisher’s team was in perfect position to make yet another second-half comeback, their trademark in going undefeated in 2014. But it was now 2015, and the shift to the new year seemed to spell midnight for FSU’s dreams this season.
After Oregon scored on its first drive of the second half, converting a fumble into a 12-point lead, Winston responded with a drive culminating in an 18-yard touchdown pass to Travis Rudolph. The game was still in reach at 25-20. Then the shadows started to shift in the Arroyo Seco, and the magic drained away from the Seminoles.
Florida State turned the ball over on four straight possessions, hearkening back to their mediocre performance against the Gators in the Seminoles’ final game before the ACC Championship Game. Unlike Florida, though, the Ducks turned all four turnovers into touchdowns, turning the screws on a dominant performance that got out of control in the second half. The Oregon defense, in addition to generating those five turnovers, held the Seminoles to 47 yards in the fourth quarter to prevent any chance at a miraculous comeback.
The 2013 Heisman winner was decent, but Winston couldn’t match the brilliance of his counterpart on the Ducks. The redshirt sophomore completed the night with more passing yards than Mariota, finishing 29-of-45 for 348 yards. He had just one touchdown, however, along with the fumble and the interception on consecutive drives at the end of the third quarter. Both quarterbacks were pulled in the last few drives of the game — Mariota to preserve him for the national championship, Winston due to his ineffectiveness in generating points against the Ducks.
Oregon put in another balanced effort, with 338 passing yards and 301 rushing yards for its high-octane offense. Thomas Tyner, the sophomore who hadn’t had a single carry since the Ducks’ win at Utah on November 8, led the backfield with 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. Freshman sensation Royce Freeman had just 63 all-purpose yards (44 rushing, 19 receiving), but he also added two touchdowns to the scoreboard. Adding in Mariota’s contribution on the ground and the assorted carries by backups, the Ducks finished with five rushing touchdowns and an average of 6.7 yards per carry.
And in a yearwhere one receiver after another has been lost, speedy deep threat Devon Allen went down with a knee injury. Instead of de-emphasizing its passing game, though, Oregon was able to turn to freshman receiver Darren Carrington, who stepped up in a big way with seven catches for 165 yards and two scores. Sophomore tight end Evan Baylis also had a breakout performance, with six receptions for 73 yards, and freshman receiver Charles Nelson launched through the air on the way to 54 all-purpose yards.
In a season where Florida State extended its winning streak to 29 games by ever-narrowing margins, the bubble finally burst for the Seminoles. Against a deceptively-deep team that offers an overabundance of skill players for its Heisman-winning quarterback to exploit, Florida State’s uncharacteristically-mediocre defense could not keep up. And an Oregon defense that has long been derided as its Achilles heel stepped up again in a big way when it counted most to vault the Ducks into the first plus-one championship game in college football history.