How They Got Here: Oregon Ducks
By James Buckley, Jr. [ Reprinted from the Pac-12 Championship Game Program ]
The Ducks splash into Friday's game with a chance at their third straight Pac-12 Conference title. Their road to the championship game was marked by a series of offensive onslaughts, as coach Chip Kelly's high-speed offense put up weekly displays of speed, style, and scoring.
Oregon opened the season with a face-off against the highly-ranked (and eventual-No. 1) LSU Tigers. LSU had obviously been taking notes when Auburn beat Oregon in the 2010 season's BCS National Championship Game, because the Tigers grounded the Ducks, 40-27. Turnovers blunted Oregon's attack and led to several LSU scores. In this game, however, LaMichael James became Oregon's all-time leading runner.
The Ducks quickly put that game in their rear-view mirror, taking out their frustration on Nevada by piling up a season-high 69 points. Quarterback Darron Thomas tied a school record with six touchdown passes, including two to speedy freshman De'Anthony Thomas.
The hits kept on coming in a 56-7 win over Missouri State. While Darron Thomas had his day against Nevada, LaMichael James was the star of this game, running for 207 yards and three touchdowns, including one for 90 yards. It was Oregon's longest running play since a 92-yard scamper by Bob Smith in 1938.
Oregon opened Pac-12 play the following week against Arizona. James was once again the key to the point-piling offense in the 56-31 win, setting a school single-game mark with 288 yards. His two rushing touchdowns also made him Oregon's all-time leader in that category. (Oh, yes, he also had a 51-yard punt return.) In a testament to the success of Oregon's high-speed offensive style, six of the Ducks' seven touchdown drives lasted less than three minutes each.
A 43-15 victory over California continued a strong run for the Ducks and gave them two Pac-12 wins in a row. However, after gaining 239 yards and scoring another touchdown (and also becoming the sixth Pac-12 player with more than 4,000 rushing yards), James was injured late in the game. He fell awkwardly, was hit, and his arm was bent badly. He had suffered a dislocated elbow, and Oregon fans worried he might be done for the season.
However, with James on the mend, the depth of Oregon's offense shone through in a 41-27 win over Arizona State. Taking James' place was Kenjon Barner, and all he did was run for 171 yards and a touchdown; young De'Anthony Thomas added two scores and 73 yards rushing.
Against new Pac-12 foe Colorado, Oregon once again had to go to its bench as injuries hit key players. Quarterback Darron Thomas was out with a knee injury, so in stepped Bryan Bennett. Bennett ended up averaging 11.5 yards per rush, a figure matched by Barner, who stepped in again for James. Barner was a burner, bursting through the line and ripping off an 84-yard touchdown run to go with a comparatively easy four-yarder. The Ducks' defense added a pick-six by linebacker Michael Clay in the 45-2 rout.
Oregon continued on a roll against Washington State, zooming to its fourth straight game with 40 or more points. The team welcomed James and Darron Thomas back from injury, but it was De'Anthony Thomas's two second-half touchdowns that rallied the Ducks to the win. One of them came on a 93-yard kickoff return; his 11 total touchdowns for the season set a record for Oregon freshmen. Bennett got some time in the second half, again for Darron Thomas, and threw for a pair of touchdowns, helping the Ducks win, 43-28.
Though the Ducks' 34 points against Washington marked a season low in a victory, they were enough to defeat the Huskies, 34-17. Washington got as close as one touchdown in the second half before Darron Thomas made a key third-down pass to set up yet another De'Anthony Thomas touchdown run. Kicker Alejandro Maldonado added a 35-yard field goal that gave Oregon its final points. Oregon's defense racked up six sacks and forced three turnovers. The Ducks ruined the goodbye party for Husky Stadium and set up a showdown game with Pac-12 North rival Stanford.
The biggest game of the Pac-12 season to that point matched No. 3 Stanford against No. 6 Oregon in a game played at Stanford Stadium. Stanford's Andrew Luck quickly found himself in trouble against a determined Oregon defense. A first-quarter interception of a Luck pass set up an Oregon touchdown. James split the defense for a 58-yard scoring run to make it 15-6. That was one of three touchdown runs for James, who gained 146 yards on the ground. On a fourth-down play, De'Anthony Thomas caught a short pass, and his speed did the rest, resulting in a 41-yard touchdown. The game's final scoring play was emblematic of the night: Oregon's Boseko Lokombo snagged a pass by Luck and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown to cap Oregon's triumph. With the 53-30 win, the Ducks took control of the Pac-12 North and gained the inside track to host today's game. They just needed one win in their final two games to clinch both.
Unfortunately, they didn't get that win against USC in a game played a week after the Stanford victory. The Trojans came to Autzen Stadium and slowed the Ducks' offense as only LSU had managed to date. USC got ahead early on a pair of Matt Barkley touchdown passes, and then led again 21-7. Another Barkley touchdown pass in the third quarter made it 38-14.
Still, the Ducks rallied late. They charged back to make it 38-35. De'Anthony Thomas returned a kickoff 96 yards, while Barner and James each had short touchdown runs. Oregon even drove down the field late in the game to create a final chance to tie, but Maldonado's 37-yard field-goal try was wide left as time ran out. The loss was disappointing, but with a win over archrival Oregon State on November 26, a trip to today's game would be assured.
The 115th edition of the "Civil War" ended up the same as the previous three versions had—with an Oregon victory. The Ducks started slowly, but by the second quarter had hit their stride and led 28-7 at the half. Darron Thomas was especially good in the game, throwing for 305 yards and four touchdowns. James ran for 142 yards as he tried to hold onto his position as the nation's No. 1 runner. The Ducks' firepower was just too much for OSU; the final score was 49-21, the 10th time the Ducks had topped 40 points in a game in 2011.
A season that started with a bump and hit another bump later had finally led the Ducks to where they had been aiming since last January: a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game and a shot at the Rose Bowl.