Though most Oregon fans came to Autzen Stadium on Saturday to see the returns of star players LaMichael James and Darron Thomas, a few freshmen stole the show for the Ducks and highlighted an otherwise flat performance by the 7th ranked team in the nation.
It is hard to say a team that won the game 43-28 looked unimpressive, but by typical Oregon standards the Ducks did not have play with the speed and intensity they have become known for.
Thomas and James both returned to the Oregon backfield but neither found a rhythm for most of the game, though each showed flashes of their abilities.
James, the nation’s leading rusher at just over 150 yards per game, rushed only 13 times for 53 yards and failed to score a touchdown. He played the entire game with a bulky brace on his right arm, protecting the elbow he dislocated earlier in the month.
Thomas had an up and down first half, completing 8 of 13 passes for 153 yards including a 55-yard touchdown pass to Lavasier Tuinei after an impressive scramble to avoid pressure midway through the second quarter.
Thomas did throw 2 interceptions in the half, including one that was taken back for a score by Washington State’s Damante Horton. It should be noted that both interceptions that Thomas threw had bounced off of the hands of his intended receivers, so the junior quarterback is not necessarily to blame.
Thomas did not play in the second half, leaving some to believe that he was being protected from re-injuring his knee that he hurt against Arizona State 2 weeks ago. Others are under the impression that fleet-footed redshirt freshman quarterback Bryan Bennett has taken the starting job from Thomas after having considerable success while Thomas missed time with his knee injury.
Head coach Chip Kelly said he went with Bennett in the second half because he felt his freshman gave Oregon the best chance to win. Make of that what you will.
In the second half freshmen Bennett and running back De’Anthony Thomas put on a show and put the game out of reach.
Bennett came in and led the Ducks to 2 touchdowns on their first 2 drives in the second half and led the Ducks to the endzone on 3 of the 4 drives he was on the field. Bennett went 4-7 for 88 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air and picked up another 25 yards rushing.
One of Bennett’s touchdowns was thrown to fellow freshman De. Thomas, which was only part of what made the day special for the next Oregon superstar.
De. Thomas found the endzone twice on Saturday, once on the 45-yard pass from Bennett and the other on a 93-yard kickoff return in the third quarter. The freshman from Los Angeles racked up 262 total yards before the afternoon was done, a new team record for a first-year player.
Though De. Thomas had over half of Oregon’s 454 total yards, Saturday was one of the rare occasions the opponent gained more yards than the Ducks. The Cougars finished the game with 462 total yards, 337 of which were passing.
Before people begin hammering the ‘bend but don’t break’ Oregon defense, take into account that the Washington State offense spent over 40 minutes of the game with the ball. The Duck defense often has to spend the vast majority of the game on the field because their offense, whether they score or punt, is usually only on the field for a few minutes because they operate so quickly.
Giving up that many yards is nothing new for Oregon, but one positive that came out of Saturday was the increased pressure on the quarterback and the turnovers. The Ducks had 3 sacks on Cougar quarterback Marshall Lobbestael and forced him to throw the ball earlier than he would have liked for much of the game. As a result, the Ducks were able to snag 2 interceptions in the first half which is an area they have struggled with for much of the season.
Turnover margin will need to continue to improve for the Ducks as they are now heading into their 3 most difficult conference games of the season. They will play Washington and Stanford on the road before returning home to face USC.
To win those games the Ducks will need to play with more energy and urgency than they did on Saturday against the lowly Cougars.
With Chip Kelly as head coach and the opportunity for the team to go to at least the Rose Bowl, motivation should no longer be an issue for Oregon.
About the Author
Written by Rob Parness
My name is Robbie Parness and I am a student at the University of Oregon. I'm a California native that loves to play, watch and talk about all kinds of sports. I would love to become a sports writer someday or work in sports in any capacity.