DALLAS — The last and only time that Oregon previously played for a national championship was to cap the 2010 season, when the Ducks faced Auburn.
Safety Erick Dargan redshirted that year, one of about a dozen current Oregon players who made the trip to Glendale, Arizona, for that game. He watched from the sideline as the Ducks fell to the Tigers and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton 22-19.
Today, Dargan marvels at the evolution of the Ducks from their debut on the national stage against Auburn to this season’s college football playoff, which culminates Monday night when Oregon (13-1) faces Ohio State (13-1) for the title.
“Definitely full circle,” Dargan said earlier this week in Eugene as the Ducks prepared for the title game. “A few of us on this team were redshirting that year and saw what it took to get there. This year, we’ve been able to repeat it. So it definitely feels crazy to go out on top and play in the national championship game.”
But, to be frank, he didn’t think it would take the Ducks this long to get back.
“No. We fell short a couple of times. But we’re back now. That’s all that matters,” he said.
The soft-spoken fifth-year senior leads the Ducks in tackles (90) and interceptions (seven) this season. He had a notable game in Oregon’s 59-20 Rose Bowl victory over Florida State on New Year’s Day, with a forced fumble and a third-quarter interception of Heisman winner Jameis Winston.
Dargan has also evolved. While he doesn’t normally grab headlines, following the Rose Bowl victory he found himself in the spotlight as part of a defense that overwhelmed the Seminoles.
“The longer you go, the stronger you get,” he said confidently following the game. “We went longer and we stayed stronger. Everyone kept demanding more out of each other.”
The performance helped dispel the perception that Oregon’s defense was soft. The Ducks’ D had five turnovers, and the Ducks scored off three of them in a statement-making third quarter, including Tony Washington’s 58-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown.
“Those guys have been doing it all year,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “They always kind of find ways to get to the ball.”
Don Pellum took over as defensive coordinator for the Ducks this season, replacing Nick Aliotti, who retired after 17 years in the position.
Pellum’s goal at the start was to give the Ducks D some “swagger.” Dargan feels like the unit has achieved that.
“I think everyone’s on the same page. We all care,” Dargan said. “I’m not saying in the past we didn’t, but being a part of this team is special. We understand that we’ve got something special, and we want to keep it going. That’s just what it is. I don’t think there’s any magic to it or secret to it, we just have fun playing together.”
Fellow defensive back Troy Hill also redshirted the year that Oregon played at Auburn and notes how in that game, Oregon was more of the upstart newcomer. Now, national title bids are something the Ducks expect.
And the first playoffs gave even the freshman a taste of what it means to play in a big game.
“That’s what it really prepared us for, was playing in big games and understanding the atmosphere and things like that,” Hill said. “I’m sure this Rose Bowl prepared everybody for that, so we should be used to it and just come out and play now.”
Coincidentally, Dargan and Hill made their on-field debuts at what is now AT&T Stadium — then Cowboys Stadium — when the Ducks opened the season against LSU in 2011. Oregon lost that game, 40-27.
It was one of just six losses Dargan has experienced on the playing field.
“For me to play my first game there, it definitely was a blessing. I enjoyed the opportunity,” Dargan said. “When I first played there we didn’t come out with the victory, this year we have the opportunity to do it in even a bigger game.”