— Sam Finley, EDN Sports Editor
Now you can smell the roses. The Ducks smacked the UCLA Bruins 49-31 in the inaugural Pac-12 championship on Friday and punched their tickets to Pasadena. It will be Oregon’s second trip to the Rose Bowl in the last three years. They’ve also won their conference the past three consecutive seasons. That’s not only a milestone here in Eugene, it is a rarity across the country.
“It’s incredible,” said defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. “I think there are only other two teams that have ever done it (Oklahoma and USC). What’s really cool is that, somewhere down the road, someone will ask, ‘who was the last Pac-10 champ?’ It’ll be Oregon. Then they’ll ask, ‘who was the first Pac-12 champ?’ It’ll be Oregon. That’s kind of cool.”
Certainly, Aliotti’s defense played a big role in the win. It wasn’t the prettiest performance, since they allowed 31 points, but they did get some big sacks on UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince, and forced some critical turnovers. Head coach Chip Kelly believed it was another typical night for his kids.
“They really are an unsung group,” said Kelly. “We just marvel at the effort they play with. When we need big plays, they come up with them. This is a true team. It’s not one side. It’s offense, defense, and special teams. All those guys contributed.”
A lot of guys contributed, but let’s focus on two on the offensive side. First off, junior running back LaMichael James put on a show with 219 yards and three touchdowns. If this was his last game at Autzen Stadium, then it was quite the curtain call. But, while praising the fans’ pleas to come back for another season, James really isn’t thinking about that right now.
“The most important thing to me is my teammates,” said James. “I love being with them every day, and I feel very blessed to be a part of a team like this. I don’t think about one more year. I just think about the next day.”
It was another humble statement by Oregon’s all-time leading rusher. As spectacular as he is on the field, he’s always been fairly low key off of it.
“LaMichael is special,” Kelly stated. “You watch what he does in the classroom and in the community. It’s not just what he does as a football player, but how he lives his life. It’s what I want our team to be like. I think he epitomizes that. He’s about unique excellence.”
That being said, should he decide to jump to the NFL, James has treasured his time as a Duck at a time of unprecedented success.
“It means a lot to me,” James explained. “We like to reach for the sky. I think it really starts in practice. Coach Kelly does an amazing job getting the best out of all of us. If you come out and work hard every day, then the things that have happened will take care of themselves. That’s what we’ve been doing.”
Another major contributor to the Pac-12 championship win was quarterback Darron Thomas. In many respects, Friday’s game was an average day for him. He’d make a throw or two that were nowhere close to being at the intended receiver. But in the end, he wound up with 219 yards and three touchdowns through the air. Speaking of which, he now holds the school record with 63 touchdown passes in his college career.
“I’m very excited to get the record,” said Thomas. “I’ve got a lot more to go. I’m happy to be on the list with a lot of great Oregon quarterbacks. But hey, it’s my team that made it happen. The offensive line blocking for me each game. The receivers catching the ball, and running backs picking up protection. It’s all on the team.”
His coach certainly appreciated what Darron did with his arm, but also with his feet. A few weeks ago, Thomas injured his knee and his mobility has been suspect since. Yet, late in the third quarter, he broke loose on a keeper to set up Oregon’s last score that sealed the deal.
“Darron is awesome,” claimed Kelly. “I don’t want anybody else running this football team. He’s a special player. When he made that 40-yard run, I thought we were going to see an ESPN highlight where he rips the knee brace off like Forrest Gump did in the movie. One of the toughest kids I’ve ever been around.”
Now the Ducks can finally talk about playing for the highest possible prize they could achieve.
“It means a lot,” said Kelly. “The Rose Bowl is the pinnacle for this conference. It’s the ‘granddaddy.’ If don’t have the chance to play in the national championship (which we can’t because of our two losses), then there’s no other game you’d rather play in. We’re excited to go there and represent this school.”
Of course, this time around, they want to do more than simply play there. After coming up short in their last two BCS Bowl trips, Oregon needs a win to validate themselves as an elite program. Otherwise, they’ll continue to be seen as merely a very good team with fancy uniforms.
With that in mind, the Ducks will certainly have a challenge on their hands in early January against Wisconsin. The Badgers, led by brash head coach Bret Bielema, are a ground-and-pound style team, so we’ve got the power versus speed matchup going.
But who has Oregon played that could possibly compare to Wisconsin? Oh yes, Stanford. We all know how that one played out, didn’t we? In other words, the opportunity is there for the Ducks to make a statement. We’ll see if they can take the next step in a few weeks.
Let’s move on to some other things. What an interesting OSAA 6A semifinal round, huh? It wasn’t the same M.O. by Sheldon High yesterday, but the result was the same against Central Catholic. The normally high-scoring Irish didn’t score a touchdown until late in the game to squeak out an 18-9 win against the Rams in Portland.
No, they didn’t light up the scoreboard. Then again, you could argue that’s the mark of a champion. A good team will always find a way to win, even when they don’t have their best game going for them.
By the same token, the Irish will need to have their ‘A’ game this coming weekend in Portland. They’ll face the Lake Oswego Lakers for the 6A state title, and it will be a hungry bunch. While Sheldon is going for their fourth title in the last ten years, Lake Oswego is looking to win their first championship ever. Should be a tremendous game to watch.
Now then, you can look for some interesting wrinkles in the sports section, beginning with this coming Tuesday. I’ll be unveiling a new segment, and I hope it meets with your approval. What is it? You’ll find out in the next couple of days.
Until next time, I’ll see you in the bleachers.