LaMichael James and Darron Thomas returned to the starting lineup for Oregon’s matchup with Washington State on Saturday, but neither proved to be the normal offensive catalyst in the Ducks’ 43-28 victory.
In James’ first game back since suffering a dislocated elbow against California on Oct. 6, the junior couldn’t get much going early on and finished with 53 yards on 13 carries. His backfield mate, Thomas, was an efficient 8-of-13 passing for 153 yards and a touchdown in the first half, but a pair of costly interceptions gave way for redshirt freshman Bryan Bennett to start the third quarter.
The move was based on Thomas’ first-half performance after sitting out with a knee injury against Colorado last week, as well as his overall safety in the pocket.
“I just felt like he wasn’t setting his feet and sometimes I worry about, ‘Can he get out of the way?’” Oregon head coach Chip Kelly said. “And there’s a lot of reasons, there’s not just one particular reason.”
Given Bennett’s poise and strong play in the six quarters leading up to Saturday’s contest, the coaching staff had no trouble putting the freshman in charge offensively with just a 15-10 lead at halftime.
On Oregon’s first possession of the third quarter, Bennett connected with true freshman De’Anthony Thomas on a dazzling 45-yard screen pass that gave the Ducks (7-1, 5-0 Pac-12) a two-score advantage and seemed to breathe new life into an otherwise flat first-half showing.
The Cougars (3-5, 1-4) were held to a red zone field goal on the ensuing possession before Bennett and junior Kenjon Barner paced a 14-play, 77-yard scoring drive that ate 4:36 off the clock.
The duo combined for 44 yards on eight carries to move the ball inside the Washington State 20-yard line where Bennett found senior wide receiver Lavasier Tuinei for a 19-yard scoring strike to go ahead 29-13.
Tuinei, who finished with 86 yards on four receptions, also caught a 55-yard touchdown pass from Thomas late in the second quarter, giving him a team-best seven scores through the air in 2011.
Bennett’s two quick touchdowns reminded Duck fans there is indeed a star in the waiting, but it also led to a handful of questions about a quarterback controversy going into a difficult month of November. Though Kelly said he knows who the starter will be moving forward, he wouldn’t disclose that information to the media, leaving Bennett and Thomas to field those questions postgame.
“No one’s said there’s going to be a quarterback controversy yet,” Bennett said. “I don’t know what the coaches have planned. Darron and I — I’m sure I can speak for him — are just gonna go in and continue to get better each week.
“The team has confidence in both of us and whoever the coaches ask to play is what they do. We have no control over that, the players have no control over that, it’s up to the coaches, (and) whatever they ask us to do is what we’ll do.”
While the starting quarterback spot seems somewhat uncertain until Thomas is fully recovered, the role of De’Anthony Thomas is only getting bigger.
After a 24-yard touchdown pass from Cougars quarterback Marshall Lobbestael to Jared Karstetter made it a nine-point game late in the third, De’Anthony Thomas quickly silenced any remaining hopes of an upset with a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the very next play.
The score was De’Anthony Thomas’ 11th of the season (six receiving, four rushing and one return), which broke the school record for touchdowns by a true freshman set by Derek Loville in 1986.
“He’s been great,” offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said of De’Anthony Thomas. “And Darron did a great job in the summer coaching him up and has done a good job this fall. He helps him out a little bit. I’m glad he’s on our team for sure.”
A 28-yard touchdown run by Barner put Oregon ahead 43-20 in the fourth, and helped him eclipse the century mark for the third straight game to finish with 107 yards on 11 carries. His seven rushing touchdowns in Pac-12 play this season are a career high.
Lobbestael led Washington State on a final scoring drive late in the fourth when Rickey Galvin punched in a nine-yard touchdown run before Oregon burned the final 1:50 of the game. The senior quarterback finished 28-of-48 passing for 337 yards and one touchdown against two interceptions.