Note to Pac-12: Ducks are for real again
If you needed any further proof of the thrashing Oregon was dealing Arizona on Saturday night, all you had to do was scan the stands in the second half, where there were more empty seats than not.
A school record 288 yards rushing from LaMichael James will do that to foes and their followers. So will ringing up 35 points in the first half.
On a hot muggy night, a beer outside the stadium surely sounded better to Wildcat fans than witnessing further carnage inside.
James’ performance won’t soon be forgotten — not 10 years from now, not 20. Not only did he put up gaudy numbers — he also set the UO mark for all-purpose yardage in a game with 363 — but he also made plays when the Ducks seemingly needed them the most. A catch for a first down on third and long during the drive that gave Oregon a 14-0 lead. A 42-yard scamper a play before the Ducks jumped out 21-3. And after Arizona closed to 35-24 in the third quarter, James rumbled for 38 yards, including a 31-yarder, before Darron Thomas scored to put Oregon up 42-24 and kill the Wildcats’ comeback.
Breaking tackles. Spinning out of traffic. Legs churning. Always churning.
It was the night of all nights for Oregon’s career rushing leader.
But later this fall — within the framework of a season — the inkling here is that this game will be remembered for this reason as well: It reaffirmed the Ducks are darn good again.
Entering the contest, some wondered if that was the case. Two blowouts at home over Nevada and Missouri State hadn’t eased worries that the season opening loss to LSU was the real barometer of the state of the Ducks.
True, Arizona isn’t Top-25 quality. And Oregon’s win shouldn’t be viewed as any sort of watershed moment.
But the victory certainly served as a benchmark. The Wildcats are Pac-12, after all, and are certainly not a Missouri State.
“This was the one to see where we are as a football program,” head coach Chip Kelly said.
Oregon has now won a school-record 13 straight conference games and are 18-1 in league play during Kelly’s tenure.
And what must be a scary thought for other Pac-12 teams, the 2011 version of the Ducks offense still isn’t clicking on all cylinders.
James’ mind-boggling night might argue otherwise. He put on extra muscle in the off-season and was accused of being a step slower against LSU and Nevada. But he is running tougher, stronger and harder than a year ago at this time. And if it wasn’t for the referees signaling the end of the play Saturday night, he’d probably still be running up and down Wildcat Stadium as you read this.
Other Duck players had solid games. Quarterback Darron Thomas, though he threw for just 110 yards, got back to keeping the ball on occasion and piled up 52 yards on the ground and scored two touchdowns. For the first time since last season’s Civil War, Kenjon Barner flashed his speed of old on the way to two touchdowns and 72 rushing yards. Tight end David Paulsen reappeared as an offensive threat, too, snatching three passes, including one for a TD.
The Ducks defense, while giving up 398 yards through the air to Nick Foles, held the Arizona ground game in relative check (82 yards). Oregon defenders also sacked Foles five times.
But Oregon has more work to do, more tinkering, more parts to fully integrate into its system. Josh Huff, the sophomore coming off injury, caught just one pass versus Arizona. The same with emerging wide receiver Rahsaan Vaughn. Freshman sensation De’Anthony Thomas, who shined in the wins over Nevada and Missouri State, was used sparingly. Another freshman, tight end Colt Lyeria, had just one ball thrown his way. All-American cornerback Cliff Harris was back playing a bunch for the first time this season — and has yet to return a punt. Injured linebacker Michael Clay should return sometime in October.
A month or six weeks from now, Oregon is likely to be operating on a whole different level.
If so, you can expect more of what has come to be the norm the past two-plus seasons: Running roughshod over Pac-12 opponents.
The message emanating from Tucson on Saturday night was clear for all to hear: Here come the Ducks — once again.
A look back: Oregon 56, Arizona 31
How the game was won: The Ducks rolled up 415 yards on the ground — highlighted by LaMichael James’ school record 288 rushing yards — grabbing big chunks of real estate from the opening drive all the way to their final possession.
Turning point: After Arizona crept to within 35-24 with 5:43 left in the third quarter, Darron Thomas led the Ducks on an 8-play, 75-yard drive culminating in Thomas’ 5-yard touchdown run on fourth and 1. During the decisive series, LaMichael James ripped off a 31-yard scamper and Kenjon Barner went for 14 on third-and-15 from the 19.
Tone-setter: Darron Thomas ran four times for 32 yards on the opening 80-yard drive that gave the Ducks a 7-0 lead. His season high for rushing attempts in an entire game was five entering the contest. Thomas’ early runs opened things up for the Oregon offense and for James, and gave notice the Ducks were intent on mixing it up in the desert. Thomas ended up with 52 yards on 10 carries and two touchdowns.
What the win means: Despite blowout wins over against nonconference foes Nevada and Missouri State, questions remained about the productivity of the Oregon offense (in large part because of the season opening loss to LSU). After putting up 56 points vs. Arizona in the Pac-12 opener? Next question, please.
Stat of the game: LaMichael James ran for 288 yards on 23 carries, breaking by three yards the school record set by Onterrio Smith against WSU in 2001. James averaged a whopping 12.5 yards per carry.
Stat No. 2 of the game: James’ had 363 all-purpose yards in the contest, another UO mark, surpassing Smith’s previous record by 21 yards.
Stat No. 3 of the game: Oregon was a perfect 8-for-8 in the red zone. No field goals, either. They were all touchdowns.
Momentum killer: Arizona hurt itself repeatedly, particularly early on, with penalties and dropped passes. By the time intermission showed up, the Wildcats had picked up 8 penalties for 76 yards.
The man: Quarterback Nick Foles has now thrown 183 straight passes without an interception.
Feel-good moment: Josh Huff took a screen pass from Thomas and rambled for 18 yards down to the 6-yard line late in the second quarter. It was Huff’s first catch since the season opener against LSU. He missed the next two games due to a leg injury.
Second guessing: It may amount to quibbling given the final margin of victory, but Oregon was left flat-footed on the onside kick successfully executed by Arizona with 1:04 left in the first half. Shouldn’t the Ducks have been anticipating the move?
Last time they played: No. 1 Oregon defeated California 15-13 in Berkeley on Nov. 13, 2010.