Did NCAA Drug Policy Cost Oregon a National Championship?

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterJanuary 13, 2015

Jan 12, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) throws a pass during the second quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2015 CFP National Championship Game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The absence of Oregon wide receiver Darren Carrington by itself didn't cost the Ducks a national championship victory. It was, however, one of many challenges Oregon faced against Ohio State on Monday night in a 42-20 loss. 

Carrington, as you will recall, failed an NCAA-administered drug test for marijuana and did not travel to Arlington, Texas, for the title game, as reported by Aaron Fentress of CSNNW.com. The production that Oregon's offense lost as a result is a mixed bag. On one hand, Carrington led all receivers with seven catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl victory over Florida State.

On the other hand, Carrington had just 37 receptions and four touchdowns on the season, both of which ranked fourth on the team. It's not like he had established himself as a game-changer. 

Oregon was already without receiver Devon Allen and tight end Pharaoh Brown heading into Monday because of knee injuries. Did Carrington's suspension by itself cost Oregon the national title? Not by a long shot, but the loss coupled with the previous attrition undoubtedly affected Oregon's overall production. 

“It’s tough to lose those guys, but I felt that the guys who did play stepped up and made plays,” Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota said, via Carlos Mendez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “We rotate so many receivers, each guy has a lot of experience and was prepared to play.”

In some ways, Mariota is correct. Oregon has had health issues at wide receiver all season. As a result, the Ducks have played a lot of different bodies there. 

Mariota still put up 333 yards passing, about half of which went to leading receiver Byron Marshall. However, many of those yards ultimately proved to be empty. The Ducks scored one touchdown on four red-zone trips against on of the worst red-zone defenses in the country and were 2-of-12 on third downs, many of which were obvious passing situations. 

It's impossible to relive every play and wonder how it would have been different if the Ducks had their full lineup in place. Whether it was a dropped pass by Dwayne Stanford or an inaccurate pass from Mariota, Oregon's offense wasn't clicking. 

On the flip side, give credit to Ohio State. Other than a one-play, 70-yard touchdown pass to Marshall, the Buckeyes made Oregon earn most of its yards. Two of the Ducks' scoring drives were at least 11 plays; a third covered only 17 yards on six plays—and that resulted in a field goal. 

Ohio State did as good a job of stopping Oregon's ground game (four yards per rush allowed) as anyone this season. The Buckeyes were able to do it with their talented defensive line. That allowed the back seven to make plays in space. 

Oregon Receiving Yards—National Championship
PlayerCatchesYardsTouchdowns
Byron Marshall81691
Dwayne Stanford4610
Keanon Lowe3551
Evan Baylis5250
ESPN

Sure, Oregon picked up yards, but when the field got short and the windows got tight in the red zone, Ohio State's defense stepped up.  

Oregon lost for many reasons, and not all can be pinned on the offense. Most notably, Oregon couldn't tackle Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott to save its life. However, in fairness to the Ducks, attempting to bring down Elliott has drawn comparisons to corralling a midsize SUV going full speed down a highway. No one should want any part of that. 

It wasn't just Oregon that couldn't contain the two-headed monster of Elliott and quarterback Cardale Jones. Alabama, which ranked among the best rushing defenses all season heading into the College Football Playoff, allowed Elliott to run for 230 yards and gave up 281 yards on the whole to the Buckeyes in the Sugar Bowl.

In fact, if you want to pick nits, the Tide gave up 6.7 yards per rush against Ohio State. The Ducks gave up a more modest (if you will) 4.9 yards per rush. Still, it was Oregon, not Ohio State, that was gassed and beat down as time expired. 

That was the unexpected outcome of the national championship. Losing Carrington didn't help, but it also didn't result in Oregon being bowled over by a more physical team. 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. Stats courtesy of cfbstats.com

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