Dream Rose Bowl for QB Bryan Bennett: Ducks win handily, and he gets to play
LOS ANGELES - Before coming to Eugene, the last time Bryan Bennett was not a starting quarterback was his freshman year at Crespi High in Encino, Calif. Bennett was moved up to the junior varsity that year. He was not quite ready to play quarterback, but he started as an outside linebacker and played special teams.
'I was happy to do whatever at that point,' he says. 'I like playing football. I love this game. It's always fun just being on the field. I used to love to hit.'
In the first game of following season, current UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince injured his knee for Crespi, and Bennett began a three-year run as the Celts' starting QB.
When Bennett came to Oregon last year, though, he was relegated to third-string quarterback behind Darron Thomas and Nate Costa. An injury to Costa midway through the season bumped Bennett to second string, but Thomas stayed healthy and Bennett did not see the field.
When the 2010 season began, Bennett had a hard time adjusting to not being able to play.
'At first it was kind of hard for me, like it is for any true freshman coming in and then redshirting,' he says. 'When you're not going to play, it's just different because most people are used to being the guy on their team for so long that when you come to a new setting and you don't play, it's a little tough at first.'
As the season progressed, though, Bennett, 6-3, 205 pounds, began adjusting to his role as a scout-team member.
'I realized that a redshirt was probably the best thing for me in the long run,' Bennett says.
This season, Bennett finally got his chance to get into games. He began slowly, coming in during garbage time when a game had gotten out of reach. While he was happy whenever the Ducks won, Bennett often stood on the sidelines, hoping that Oregon could run up the score high enough to get him into the action.
'I always want to see my team win, first of all,' Bennett says. 'But I do know in the back of my head, if we get up by a pretty good amount there was a chance I would play.'
Then, Thomas went down with a knee injury on the first play of the third quarter against Arizona State. Bennett, a fleet runner and a solid passer, was behind center with 12:21 remaining in the quarter with the Ducks down 24-21. With lots of help from running backs Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas, Bennett led the offense down the field for four second half scores-two touchdowns and two field goals-and Oregon rolled to a 41-27 victory. Bennett finished the night 2 of 5 passing for 22 yards and picked up 65 yards on the ground on five carries.
With Thomas still recovering, Bennett got his first career start the following week against Colorado. He completed 11 of 20 passes for 156 yards and two TDs and rushed six times for 69 yards in the Ducks 45-2 win over the Buffalos.
Getting a chance to be the Ducks starting quarterback, Bennett experienced a little of the glitz and the glam that goes along with being the signal caller for an elite college football team.
'It was a great experience,' Bennett says. 'Things definitely changed a little bit. Especially in Eugene. Football is a big deal in our city and in the school. People started to maybe notice me a little more and just stop me and say 'good game' or things like that. (Playing so much) made my family very proud, and that meant a lot to me. It was a great experience.'
The next week against Washington State, Thomas was in the starting lineup. He never looked comfortable on his injured knee, though. At halftime, with Oregon leading 15-10, Bennett replaced Thomas. He completed 4 of 7 passes for 88 yards and two TDs and rushed four times for 25 yards.
After the game, a minor quarterback controversy arose when Oregon coach Chip Kelly said he already knew who would be the starter for the following week's game but refused to say who it would be.
'I don't have to answer that question, but I know who he is,' Kelly said.
Bennett tried to take the controversy in stride.
'That didn't change anything for Darron or myself,' he says. 'I didn't even think the coaches (were going to bench Thomas). That was just something that got brought up and it got dropped right after. It wasn't something that we even worried about.'
After starting the Ducks' last five games, Thomas says that he is 100 percent healthy for Monday's Rose Bowl against Wisconsin. But Bennett is just one snap away from being forced into the spotlight and charged with leading the Ducks to victory.
Should tragedy strike Thomas, Kelly feels that the experience Bennett has had playing in meaningful situations this season will serve him well.
'Bryan has really come along as a redshirt freshman,' Kelly says. 'He got his opportunities to get in there and not just when he got in early in the year when we were beating teams pretty good. I was pleased with the poise that he was playing with.'
Bennett is hoping that Thomas stays healthy against Wisconsin. But, Bennett is preparing himself for whatever may come.
'I hope Darron does stay healthy,' Bennett says. 'But all I can do is just continue to prepare myself as if I'm a starter and try to get better.'
If the redshirt freshman is about to live Monday in his perfect world, Thomas would stay healthy and Bennett would enter the game in a blowout.
'I would love to see our team do that,' Bennett says.
Bennett knows that sometimes being a college football player requires work before glory. So, even if Thomas has to go the distance for the Ducks, Bennett will be happy with how the season has turned out.
'It's been a great season, getting a shot to actually go out there and showcase some of my abilities,' Bennett says. 'I understand that people do their time and opportunities will come, chances will come. I'm just waiting for my chance.'