Vernon Adams Jr. was the last player to take the podium as lights and cameras quickly brightened the lifted stage following No. 5 Michigan State’s (2-0) 31-28 victory over No. 7 Oregon (1-1). Adams, who finished the game 22-of-39 for 309 yards, one touchdown and two picks, knew he had blown an opportunity. His moist eyes gleamed of disappointment and guilt as he repeated the following words over and over: “It starts with me. I’m putting this game on myself. I need to be better.”
On a second-and-six – two plays before Oregon’s last – the Eastern Washington transfer saw Byron Marshall streaking down the left side of the field and decided to launch what could have been the game-winning ball. For a moment, all of Spartan Stadium stood and stared with no idea of what would happen next.
Said Adams: “You know, I can’t stop thinking about it. He was wide-open and you got to make that throw and the game is different.”
The ball, which eventually soared over a diving Marshall, was Oregon’s best chance at escaping East Lansing with its first win as underdogs since 2011 (Oregon beat an Andrew Luck led Stanford team on the road). As the ball eventually fell just out the reach of Marshall’s fingertips, the veteran wide out threw up his hands in frustration, knowing the game was likely over.
“I felt the DB fall,” Marshall said. “I knew I was going to be open. I just tried to look back for the ball and see where it was at and go get it. I couldn’t get it.”
For those wondering, the play, according to offensive coordinator Scott Frost, was initially designed to hit the tight end on a short pass for the easy first down. Instead, Adams made a decision on the fly – that Frost wasn’t thrilled about – to take a chance on his speedy receiver, only to watch what could have been the play of the night, miss by inches.
Both later admitted to seeing how open the play was once it ensued.
“It could have been a different ball game if we played cleaner,” Oregon wide receiver Bralon Addison said.
This game is on Adams and he knows it. Nobody was going to pin a game with this type of magnitude, context solely on the shoulders of a quarterback that is in his first full season at the FBS level, except Adams himself. And trust me, Adams wholeheartedly took the fall for a matchup that ended up in Oregon’s favor last year, that could have gone their way again this year if a couple plays went their way.
“I need to be a better quarterback and leader. I got to take care of the ball, no interceptions, fumbles.”
Forget the fact that Madre London trucked Reggie Daniels on the Spartans opening drive; forget the fact that Johnny Mundt’s false start at the one-yard line led to three straight goal line stops. Forget that Addison, who finished with a game-high 138 yards on seven catches, almost brought Oregon back with crucial catches and an 81-yard punt return to the house in the third quarter. Even if it’s hard, try and forget some of the gaping deficiencies in the Oregon secondary that included a plethora of missed tackles.
What Oregon will remember, and what the fans at this game will remember, will be the missed offensive opportunities down the stretch that prevented the Pac-12 North favorites from making the difference late in the game.
Last year, Marcus Mariota entered Autzen Stadium to lead a No. 3 ranked Oregon team past No. 7 Michigan State. Last year, Mariota started his Heisman campaign and College Football Playoff hunt with one simple pitch to Royce Freeman that changed the entire complexion of an unforgettable season. Last September, Mariota willed the Ducks to their biggest home and non-conference win of the year that propelled them to the upper echelon of college football. It’s what separated Mariota from the rest: his natural talent, instinct and leadership to single-handedly will a team to victory.
Mariota is no longer here and the Ducks felt it tonight, whether they will admit it or not.
They cringed on every open pass that went incomplete; they cringed on every deep ball that went overthrown. That includes Adams’ first interception of the season directed at a temporarily open Charles Nelson that was soon taken away by Montae Nicholson.
Saturday morning, Nike released a timeless, viral video in the lead up to Oregon’s marquee matchup with Michigan State. The video, which was roughly five minutes of partying to the iconic soundtrack “Shout,” included every imaginable athlete/alumni that’s helped build its modern brand. From Tinker Hatfield to Ashton Eaton, everybody who was anybody was there.
It was a party that never looked like it was going to end. It was the party that was supposed to follow tonight’s win in East Lansing had fortunes rested with the “Galaxy White” helmets.
The athlete that was featured, that ran the operation was none other than Mariota.
There, in the reenacted Animal House, stood Oregon’s greatest football player one day before his own season opener against Tampa Bay and Jameis Winston. There, stood a Bluto-reenacting Mariota breaking the guitar by the staircase putting on a spectacle only Oregon fans can fully appreciate in retrospect.
This is who Oregon missed tonight. This is who Oregon could have used tonight to lead them past the gritty Spartans. But he’s not here anymore, and there may never be another one like him.
“Last year was a lot more fun at the end, I remember that,” Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said.
Here instead, is an eager and highly talented fifth-year transfer that made himself vulnerable at the media’s disposal after his most devastating loss.
Adams is not Mariota and he never will be. He’s a different breed, with a different set of skills and approach. He’s the quarterback that replaced the reigning Heisman winner after arriving four days late to camp. Adams was the quarterback just one play shy of being nationally praised.
Now, Oregon will have to wait and see if they can mirror what Ohio State did last season after dropping a critical game early in the season.
“Everybody was fine, nobody was nervous,” Adams said. “We just need to execute.”
Follow Hayden Kim on Twitter: @HayDayKim