James, QB Thomas reach milestones; Ducks bound for Rose Bowl
EUGENE - The Oregon Ducks are the Pac-12 Conference football champions for the third consecutive year, after beating the league's eighth-best team Friday night.
Questions about what might have happened had the Ducks played USC in the first-ever Pac-12 title game will have to linger.
The Ducks punched their ticket to their third consecutive BCS game, beating the UCLA Bruins 49-31 at Autzen Stadium.
Oregon (11-2) will play Wisconsin of the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl, Jan. 2, 2012.
"They just kept their eye on the prize and nothing will knock them down," said UO coach Chip Kelly, whose team has dropped its past two BCS games.
"That's something to be proud of," Kelly added, of going to a third BCS game after a third consecutive league title. "It's about living in the moment and being a part of this group, and I'm really, really proud about what this group accomplished."
Kelly presented the Pac-12 trophy to terminated UO president Richard Lariviere - "I think the world of that man," the football coach said.
For the Ducks, LaMichael James rushed for three touchdowns and, along with his 219 yards on 25 carries, moved into third on the Pac-10/Pac-12 all-time rushing list and second on the all-time rushing touchdown list.
"It means a lot," said James, of team and individual accolades. "Reach for the sky."
Added Kelly: "I think our president (Lariviere) said it once, and I truly believe this, this university is about unique excellence. That's what this young man is about. He's about unique excellence."
Quarterback Darron Thomas threw three touchdown passes, on 20 of 36 passing for 219 yards, moving past Danny O'Neil to sit atop the UO all-time list with 63 TD tosses. He also had a TD run.
The Ducks scored touchdowns after three UCLA first-half turnovers to lead 35-17 at halftime.
Then they finished off the woebegone Bruins, who had the Pac-12's eighth-best overall record (6-7) and played their final game for lame duck coach Rick Neuheisel.
NCAA sanctions kept USC from playing the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game - the Trojans beat UO 38-35 Nov. 19 and trumped UCLA 50-0 last week.
By virtue of an earlier win against Stanford, the Ducks earned their way into the conference title game as North Division champs; while the Bruins held off Utah and Arizona State in the woeful (not counting USC) South Division.
James has the Rose Bowl left to move into second on the league's all-time rushing list. With 4,923 yards, he trails OSU's Ken Simonton (5,044 yards) and USC's Charles White (6,245), after moving past USC's Marcus Allen and into third on the list Friday. He also became the conference's first running back with three seasons of 1,500-plus rushing yards.
The Ducks had 571 yards offense to UCLA's 337, sacked UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince four times and forced four turnovers.
"It was a fantastic showing tonight, as it's been over the last several years," Neuheisel said, of the Ducks. "It's a dynamic program, one that is tough to keep up with. We found that out first-hand tonight."
But, the Bruins continued to challenge the Ducks for a while in the second half. After a UO punt, they marched for points. Derrick Coleman ran for 36 yards and quarterback Kevin Prince scored on a 1-yard TD run, cutting the deficit to 35-24.
But the Ducks responded, as James scored his third touchdown and 52nd career rushing TD, tying him with LenDale White of USC for second on the all-time conference list; Simonton had 59 career rushing TDs.
James rushed for 16 yards, and Thomas hit Josh Huff, who had a standout game, for 20 yards to the UCLA 5. James scored on a 5-yard TD run, and it was 42-24.
After a UCLA punt, Thomas made history. He rushed a career-long 40 yards. And, he threw a 22-yard TD pass to David Paulson, a play that broke his TD pass tie with O'Neil.
"I've got a lot more to go," Thomas, a junior, said. "Happy to be on the list with a lot of good Oregon quarterbacks, great Oregon quarterbacks."
"Darron is awesome," Kelly added. "I don't want anybody else to run this football team. He's a special player."
The Ducks led 49-24. The Bruins scored again when Nelson Rosario made a terrific one-handed, 19-yard TD grab from Prince, who went 13 of 26 for 164 yards. Coleman had 83 yards on the ground.
The Ducks, who beat UCLA 60-13 last season, found the visitors to Autzen competitive in the first half.
Although it was technically a neutral-site affair, with a Pac-12 makeover at Autzen, the Ducks had overwhelmingly more fans in the stands.
UCLA's Johnathan Franklin fumbled on the game's second play, with Dewitt Stuckey recovering for Oregon. James scored on a 30-yard TD run moments later, the first of the three turnovers turned into touchdowns.
UO freshman De'Anthony Thomas coughed up a fumble that didn't hurt the Ducks, but QB Thomas wasn't as fortunate.
His third-down pass bounced off Kenjon Barner's arms and into the hands of UCLA linebacker Patrick Larimore, who returned the ball 35 yards for the touchdown, evading offensive lineman Mark Asper's tackle attempt along the way.
But the Ducks bounced back, as James ran for 16 yards and QB Thomas hit Josh Huff for 31 yards. Darron Thomas rushed for a 10-yard TD, and Oregon led 14-7, and the Ducks wouldn't trail again.
Tony Washington forced a Prince fumble, with Michael Clay recovering at the UO 48. James and Barner ran the Ducks into scoring position and QB Thomas threw a 7-yard TD pass to Colt Lyerla, and it was 21-7, Oregon.
The Bruins, coming off the 50-0 loss to rival USC, showed some spunk in closing within 21-14. Prince led UCLA up field, and the Bruins scored on a pretty flea-flicker Coleman taking the handoff and pitching back to Prince, who found Rosario running wide open for the 37-yard TD pass.
But, the Ducks bounced back, as they often do, with Paulson catching a 20-yard pass from Darron Thomas on third down. James ripped through the UCLA defense for 25 yards and scored on a 3-yard TD run.
The Bruins tried to get cute again, but the trick play blew up in their face. Coleman's reverse lateral attempt to Josh Smith fell on the Autzen turf, with UO's Terrell Turner recovering. A third turnover, a third UO touchdown: QB Thomas hitting Daryle Hawkins for a 25-yard TD pass. It was Thomas' 62nd career TD pass, which tied him with O'Neil.
That made the score 35-14 for UO.
The Ducks' Dion Jordan floored Prince for a sack, but the game UCLA quarterback got up and later led the Bruins to more points. He hit Joseph Fauria for 30 yards, and Tyler Gonzalez booted a 44-yard field goal as time expired in the second quarter. UCLA had cut its deficit to 18 points at halftime.
UCLA 7 10 7 7 -- 31
OREGON 21 14 14 0 -- 49
OREGON -- 1st, 13:13: LaMichael James 30 run (Alejandro Maldonado kick)
UCLA -- 1st, 7:55: Patrick Larimore 35 interception return (Tyler Gonzalez kick)
OREGON -- 1st, 6:29: Darron Thomas 10 run (Maldonado kick)
OREGON -- 1st, 0:59: Colt Lyerla 7 pass from Thomas (Maldonado kick)
UCLA -- 2nd, 12:22: Nelson Rosario 37 pass from Kevin Prince (Gonzalez kick)
OREGON - 2nd, 8:27: James 3 run (Maldonado kick)
OREGON -- 2nd, 4:25: Daryle Hawkins 25 pass from Thomas (Maldonado kick)
UCLA -- 2nd, 0:01: Tyler Gonzalez 44 FG
UCLA -- 3rd, 12:10: Prince 1 run (Gonzalez kick)
OREGON -- 3rd, 9:57: James 5 run (Maldonado kick)
OREGON -- 3rd, 4:45: David Paulson 22 pass from Thomas (Maldonado kick)
UCLA -- 4th, 1:51: Rosario 19 pass from Prince (Gonzalez kick)