By Matt Walks
With a rose between his teeth, Oregon defensive back Brian Jackson couldn’t stop smiling.
“We did it, baby!” he yelled, as fans and confetti enveloped him. “We’re going to Pasadena!”
For the second time in three years, he and the rest of the Oregon Ducks are headed to the Rose Bowl.
The Pac-12 North champs racked up 571 total yards, overwhelming the upset-minded UCLA Bruins 49-31 in the first-ever Pac-12 Championship Game on a chilly Friday night in Autzen Stadium.
The No. 8 Ducks (11-2) move on to play in the "The Granddaddy of Them All" against the winner of No. 11 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin, while the Bruins (6-7) will wait and see where they end up after being granted a bowl eligibility waiver by the NCAA earlier this week.
Regardless of where they go, UCLA will make the trip without head coach Rick Neuheisel who was fired earlier this week. Friday’s game marked Neuheisel’s last after a four-year stint as coach of his alma mater. As he walked off the field, he hugged his children and glanced around the stadium one last time.
“It’s one of those things where I didn’t really want it to end,” Neuheisel said. “But end it did, and we’ll move on.”
The win also marks the third time in Oregon head coach Chip Kelly’s three-year tenure the Ducks have won the conference. Kelly too was all smiles after the game, but from start to finish, the night — and the spotlight — belonged to his running back LaMichael James.
In what might have been James’ last game in Autzen, Oregon’s dynamic junior had a record night, rushing for three touchdowns and 219 yards on just 25 carries. He didn’t waste time doing it, either.
Less than two minutes into the game on Oregon’s fourth play from scrimmage, James burst through the line and ran 30 yards untouched for the game’s first score. The strike came after an early UCLA fumble, and the Bruins looked unprepared to play on such a grand stage.
But Oregon had jitters of its own. Running back Kenjon Barner muffed a dump-off pass, and Bruins linebacker Patrick Larimore intercepted it and ran it back for a 35-yard score to tie the game at seven. The rest of the first quarter wasn’t much prettier.
But Oregon struck twice more before the quarter was over: the first a 10-yard run by Darron Thomas and the second a 7-yard touchdown pass from Thomas to freshman tight end Colt Lyerla, extending the lead to 21-7.
Yet just when it looked like the Ducks would run away with it — when the 32-point spread Las Vegas oddsmakers put on the game looked conservative — the Bruins battled back.
In UCLA’s first drive of the second quarter, Neuheisel dialed up a flea flicker, and quarterback Kevin Prince nailed wideout Nelson Rosario on a 37-yard crossing route to bring UCLA back within one score. It was the Bruins’ first offensive score since Nov. 19 against Colorado, and the touchdown breathed life into UCLA’s sidelines.
But James struck again, this time from three yards out. When Thomas hit wide receiver Daryle Hawkins four minutes later for his second touchdown pass of the day to make the score 35-14, again the Bruins looked sunk.
UCLA wouldn’t quit, though. Tyler Gonzalez drilled a 44-yard field goal as the first half expired, and the defense forced a three-and-out coming out of halftime to give Prince and Co. another shot.
They capitalized just a minute and a half later when Prince punched in a one-yard touchdown run to make it a two-score game.
And then, like he’s done in the fourth quarter so many times this year, Oregon’s No. 21 took over. First, James ran right for four, then four more. On third and two, he took it over the right tackle for 16 more down to the UCLA 22-yard line. After Thomas hit wide receiver Josh Huff for 20 more, James pounded it inside for another touchdown, this one five yards out to put the game on ice.
Both teams would pass for one more touchdown each — Thomas to tight end David Paulson and Prince to Rosario again — but the outcome had already been decided by the speed and heart of LaMichael James.
“He’s special,” Kelly said. “It’s not just a football thing with him. It’s the way he lives his life. He’s this university … and I truly believe that our university is about unique excellent, and that young man is about unique excellence.”
As James accepted the game’s Most Valuable Player award, “One more year!” chants echoed from the stands.
“I love the fans,” James said. “They support me through thick and thin, always.”
And so, a night of historic firsts, it was the lasts that many fans will linger on. For Oregon, the question remains whether James will return for his senior season. After conquering every meaningful rushing record at Oregon, another season would likely put him at or near the top of every conference record as well.
Still, he insists it’s not something he thinks about.
“The most important thing to me is my teammates,” James said. “I don’t think about next year. I just think about the next day.”
While James still has one more game before he has to consider his upcoming plans, Coach Neuheisel is left to ponder his immediate future.
“I will evaluate,” Neuheisel said. “I've got a great wife, I've got three good boys. We will evaluate what’s next. Obviously I've got some decisions to make as to stay or move or all that kind of stuff, but a lot of that will get cleared up here in short order.”
UCLA will travel back to Los Angeles to wait on the Bowl Selection Committee’s word on where they will finish their season.
To wrap up its first-ever 14-game season, Oregon plays in the Rose Bowl Jan. 2. That’s still a month away. Until then, at least they have something to smile about.