He danced for a brief moment. He swept to the right. And then, as he has done over and over in his Oregon career, LaMichael James slid into the end zone.
UCLA had been threatening to make something of this first-ever Pac-12 Championship Game. And derail Oregon’s Rose Bowl trip.
But in what was likely his last game ever at Autzen Stadium, James, along with his teammates, shut the door on that nonsense.
His 5-yard run with 9:47 left in the third quarter gave Oregon a 42-24 lead Friday night in what would become a 49-31 victory over the Bruins, a third consecutive conference title, a third consecutive BCS bowl invite.
Later, with confetti falling all around him, the redshirt junior running back stepped up to accept the game’s MVP trophy. He waved the hardware, gestured to the fans, and thanked his teammates.
Vintage LaMichael James. Giving credit elsewhere. Even after a 219-yard rushing, three-touchdown performance.
“I love my teammates,” he shouted into the microphone.
“One more year! One more year! One more year!” the fans chanted back.
Much has been written about the job Chip Kelly has done turning Oregon from a good program into a great one since he took over as head coach before the start of the 2009-10 season.
Here’s to the notion that Kelly wouldn’t be sporting a 33-6 overall record — with the Rose Bowl game still left this season against either Wisconsin or Michigan State — without James in his backfield for the past three years.
“To the program, he’s meant the world,” fellow running back Kenjon Barner told reporters after Friday’s victory. “If it is his last game (at Autzen) — if — he’ll be missed.”
Yes, the Ducks still would have won plenty if James hadn’t been around. Barner, you see, would start on most other Top 25 teams. There’s also junior quarterback Darron Thomas, now 21-3 as a starter and with a school-record 63 career TD passes, and before him there was a capable Jeremiah Masoli. The list goes on. David Paulson, De’Anthony Thomas, Josh Huff, John Boyett, Jeff Maehl, Drew Davis, Casey Matthews, Spencer Paysinger, Kenny Rowe. Many others. Really good players that have made up really good teams.
But none of those players approach what James has accomplished both for himself and the Oregon program during his stint in Eugene.
Mention his name to kids around the country and they know who LaMichael is. And they know he plays for the Ducks. The Oregon Ducks.
Look around Autzen on any game day. There are hundreds and hundreds of No. 21 jerseys present.
The statistics and records speak volumes: Third in Pac-12 rushing history with 4,923 career yards, having surpassed USC’s Marcus Allen in Friday’s UCLA game; the first player in league history to compile three 1,500-yard seasons; tied for second with USC’s LenDale White in Pac-12 history with 52 rushing TDs.
So does the national recognition: A first-team All-American, a Doak Walker Award winner, a Heisman Trophy finalist.
But there is more to James and the mark he has made as a Duck than mere numbers and awards.
By design or not, his style of play has epitomized the Ducks’ own relentless style of play during the program’s unprecedented run of success.
He runs fast and he runs hard and he runs determined.
The respect he has earned from teammates has been exactly that — earned.
Injuries, such as the dislocated elbow he suffered this season or the ankle sprain that slowed him down a season ago? For James, those have been obstacles to be overcome, all in a bid to help his team win.
Never give an inch.
Always moving forward.
Midway through his redshirt freshman season, Oregon fans had come to understand a simple truth: Every time James touched the ball there was a possibility of a touchdown. Take a restroom break at your own peril.
He did that Friday night with the game’s opening touchdown, a 30-yard burst off the left side. If you made the mistake of glancing at the scoreboard at that particular moment in time, you likely missed the play.
In the middle of the fourth quarter, on what would be one of his final carries on the night, there was another one of those signature moments. James took the ball from Thomas, broke a tackle and scooted for 43 yards before being brought down — barely. When he popped up, James’ body language told all 59,376 in attendance what he was thinking. It was one of his classic I-almost-had-a-score-give-me-the-ball-again-man-I-love-this-game moments.
The fans tipped their heads back along with James. Visions of another TD run had been dancing around in their brains, too.
It’s been seen so many times before.
As the Duck players and coaching staff celebrated on the FOX stage, Kelly was asked if he thought James would be back for a final year. Kelly responded that James should do whatever is best for James. He then praised his star player for being a great representative of the school and for being a true student-athlete.
The fans cheered.
“One more year! One more year!”
That is probably wishful thinking. The NFL is waiting.
What isn’t wishful or waiting is this thought: LaMichael James, greatest running back in Oregon football history.