DALLAS — Mike Ainsworth can remember when he was a senior at Central High School in 1973, there were four Oregon Ducks fans — in the entire school.
“Back then, if you beat Idaho, that was a good year,” he said. “How things have changed.”
Four decades later, the Ducks will play Ohio State for the national title Monday in Arlington, Texas, in the first championship game of the College Football Playoff era.
Ainsworth, a Polk County commissioner — and once long-suffering Ducks fan — will be there with his wife, DeAnn, to cheer on the team. He was at the Rose Bowl for the national semifinal playoff game in Pasadena, Calif., on New Year’s Day to see Oregon’s win. Ohio State defeated Alabama in the other semifinal to punch its ticket to the title game.
To see the Ducks in a second national football championship game in four years — Oregon lost to Auburn 22-19 in 2011 — is a pretty nice reward for the loyalty he’s shown the team over the years. Ainsworth has had season tickets for more than 30 years. He ran into one of the three other Oregon fans he went to school with at the Rose Bowl.
“We reflected on what it was like 42 years ago when we were seniors in high school — we never thought this would ever happen,” Ainsworth said. “It’s fun because we watched some pretty bad football when we first got season tickets.”
Those dark days are over — a point the Ducks drove home with a 59-20 pummeling of defending national champion Florida State on Thursday.
“I thought it would be really tight,” Ainsworth said of his thoughts before the semifinal game. “I thought that we could score on them, but they could also score on us. But our defense has really played well the latter part of the season, especially the last four games.”
The score was tight, 18-13 in favor of the Ducks, at halftime, giving Oregon fans anxiety with FSU quarterback Jameis Winston and Co.’s “second-half team” reputation. The Ducks defense had an answer for that, starting with linebacker Derrick Malone Jr.’s strip of FSU star freshman running back Dalvin Cook during the Seminoles’ opening possession of the second half.
“It seemed like it was Katy bar the door then,” Ainsworth said. “The dam had broken … That was the beginning, when momentum shifted.”
Momentum turned into an avalanche of Oregon scoring — 27 points in the third quarter alone.
“I knew it was over when (linebacker) Tony Washington picked that ball up and ran it in for a touchdown,” Ainsworth said, referring to Winston’s now-infamous “stumble fumble.” “The people in our section were just going crazy. It really makes the trip worthwhile when you win.”
Actually, the Rose Bowl was the cap on a fantastic two-day stretch for the Ainsworths. The day before the Rose Bowl, they were showing their Panther Pride as they watched Central graduate Grant Hedrick quarterback the Boise State Broncos to victory in the Fiesta Bowl.
“We watched him grow up,” Ainsworth said. “He’s a great athlete, but he’s a better person than he is an athlete. We should have been saying Hedrick for Heisman.”
Well, Ainsworth isn’t in the least disappointed college football’s highest individual honor went to Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
And Ainsworth is hoping — nay is confident — the Ducks will keep that roll going Monday night. He isn’t overlooking the ‘Bama-tested Buckeyes, though.
“It’s going to be tough. I would venture to say that Ohio State is the hottest team in the country,” he said. “They are just phenomenal, but so are the Ducks. We have the best college football player in Marcus Mariota.”
“I’m not going down there to watch them get beat,” Ainsworth added. “I hope they win.
In addition to the chance to win the team’s first national championship, there is a little revenge on the line for the Ducks. Oregon is 0-8 against Ohio State, the last defeat coming in the 2009 Rose Bowl. Oregon — and its fans — would love to erase that memory.
“You’ve got to get that monkey off your back at some point, so I think this is the perfect time,” Ainsworth said. “I think we match up well with them.”
Playing For A National Title
Who: Oregon Ducks (13-1) vs. Ohio State Buckeyes (13-1).
What: College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
When: Monday, 5:30 p.m. (PST)
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas.
Radio: KXTG-AM 750, KXTG-FM 102.9.
Point spread: Oregon favored by 7 points.