PASADENA, Calif. — For the first time in his career, LaMichael James had every reason to celebrate the season’s end.
In perhaps the final outing of the most illustrious career in Oregon football history, James rushed for 159 yards and one touchdown in helping the fifth-ranked Ducks to a 45-38 victory over No. 10 Wisconsin in the 98th Rose Bowl Monday evening.
The redshirt junior broke his own school single-season rushing clip with 1,805 yards, besting his own mark of 1,731 set in 2010. But on a day filled with broken records and highlight reel footage, the end result was the only thing that mattered between two programs desperate for a postseason victory.
“It just makes you feel unbelievable,” said James, who passed the 5,000-yard rushing mark for his career (5,082), which ranks 13th all-time in NCAA history.
Oregon (12-2) shook any reservations about not being able to perform in the postseason against a talented Wisconsin squad (11-3) that lost in the Rose Bowl for the second straight year.
As third-year head coach Chip Kelly said repeatedly during the month-long build up to the game, the Ducks are “a forward-thinking operation” and don’t put unnecessary emphasis on past losses — particularly against Ohio State and Auburn.
“We believe it’s on the line every day we step on the practice field,” Kelly said. “We believe it’s on the line every game we play in, and that formula works for us. We’re 34-6 in the last three years because we take every game like it’s the Super Bowl.”
With Oregon trailing 38-35 late in the third quarter, junior offensive lineman Carson York went down with what appeared to be a serious knee injury on a play that saw Darron Thomas intercepted by safety Aaron Henry in the Wisconsin redzone.
It took several minutes for the medical staff to get the 6-foot-5, 292-pound guard onto a stretcher and off the field. Meanwhile, the Wisconsin fan base, which largely outnumbered Oregon supporters, began to do the wave around its portion of the stadium.
Neither the Duck fans nor the players took lightly to act, and once play resumed it was all Oregon. After three straight runs by junior Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball, junior linebacker Kiko Alonso made a diving interception near midfield to swing the momentum back in Oregon favor as the final period began.
A few moments later, Thomas connected with senior Lavasier Tuinei for his second touchdown of the game from 11 yards out to take a five-point lead. Oregon’s defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, then proceeded to exhaust nearly six minutes off the play clock before Alejandro Maldonado made a 30-yard field goal for the game’s final points.
James carried the ball nine times for 28 yards in the fourth quarter. He said the injury to York and the way the Wisconsin fans responded simply added fuel to an already red-hot fire.
“Especially when the other team was being very disrespectful, and I really felt that way,” James said. “Why would you do the wave when you know there’s a player down? I didn’t really like that too well. I just wanted to go out there and win that game for our fans and for Carson, he went down with the injury and that was a disrespectful moment.”
Alonso’s key interception was one of several impressive plays from the junior linebacker on the day, who also had 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss to go along with multiple special teams tackles. For his effort, Alonso was named the Defensive Player of the Game.
“It feels great to get the win for (the seniors) because I came in with most of them,” Alonso said. “It just feels great to get it for all of them.”
One of those seniors, Tuinei, had arguably the best game of his career. The 6-foot-5 wide receiver finished with a career-high eight receptions for 158 yards and a pair of timely touchdowns, and was selected the Offensive Player of the Game.
“LT been working hard all year, it’s destined to happen for him,” said Thomas, who finished 17-of-23 for 268 yards and three scores with one interception. “That guy’s been working hard ever since the jump. He’s one of the guys that’s been working through injury all year.”
Kelly reiterated that Monday’s victory was a complete team effort, and true freshman De’Anthony Thomas made sure to put a his own stamp on the victory.
The co-Pac-12 Freshman of the Year set the Rose Bowl record for the longest run and scoring play with his 91-yard rushing touchdown to end the first quarter. He also set the new Rose Bowl standard for all-purpose yards with 314 (155 rushing, 34 receiving and 125 on kickoff returns).
After the game, Thomas was asked how he’d approach his sophomore season.
“I feel like I’ve got to work on everything,” Thomas said. “Just when the season comes, we’ll just start all over and work harder just like I did this summer. Just be a leader again for my team.
“Just excel with the freshman class that’s coming up next year, and it’s going to be great to watch.”