Oregon 43, California 15.
If there was a theme tonight (one that didn’t have to do with the Ducks’ uniforms, anyway), it should have been the official return of the Oregon Death Star on a national stage. The last time we saw the Ducks’ warp-speed offense on national television, it was being methodically snuffed out by LSU in a season-opening loss that effectively ended any hopes Oregon had of returning to the BCS title game before they could begin. A month later, here the Ducks were again, back to their usual, earth-scorching ways — right up until the second play of the fourth quarter, when their fate suddenly seemed to rest on the right arm of the most prolific running back in America.
That’s not to suggest that they were just waking up: The Ducks came in as the highest-scoring offense in the country at 52 points per game, thanks to consecutive, stat-padding routs at the expense of overmatched defenses from Nevada, Missouri State and Arizona, and they leave that way, thanks to four consecutive, unanswered touchdown drives in the second half against the No. 2 total defense in the Pac-12. In the third quarter alone, the Ducks scored 21 points and outgained the Bears 256 yards to thirty-eight. Within five minutes of leaving the locker room, Cal‘s 15-14 halftime lead had fallen; within 15 minutes, it had been obliterated like a wooden fence in the path of a wildfire.
If only the explosion had been only LaMichael James, maybe it wouldn’t have been quite so terrifying for the rest of the Pac-12. James was a nightmare, as always — he went off for 240 yards on 30 carries, his third consecutive 200-yard game on the ground, including a 53-yard touchdown sprint on his first touch of the night and three other runs covering at least 30 yards — but from a reigning Heisman finalist and the current NCAA leader in all-purpose yards, you expect to take your medicine. But even the undisputed star of the show was only the most recognizable face in a gifted ensemble: During the third quarter rally alone, mega-hyped freshman De’Anthony Thomas brought in two touchdown passes to go with his rushing touchdown in the first quarter, and added the longest reception of the night, good for 41 yards; meanwhile, backup tailback Kenjon Barner went 68 for the back-breaking touchdown that put Oregon up by two scores, 29-15. For the game, the Ducks rang up 563 yards on 7.4 per play — more or less right at their season averages.
Miraculously, James showed up in the postgame press conference and casually vowed to return in short order from a skin-crawling arm injury (WARNING: Link may be is disturbing) early in the fourth quarter, telling reporters that the injury was “only” a dislocation and that X-rays revealed no broken bones. I’m not that kind of doctor, but you don’t need a decade of training or a medical license to know that arms are not supposed to bend the way James’ did. The chilling groan from the home crowd when the injury was replayed on the stadium scoreboard was a kind of diagnosis in itself: There was no reason as he was being carted away with his arm in an air cast to expect James to set foot on a field again this year.
If he’s right, and he is back in time to make a go of it down the stretch, it will be a marvel of modern medicine and pure, dumb luck. Still, even on the heels of one of the most dominant nights of his career, the prospect of James’ temporary absence is a far cry from a death sentence where the Pac-12 championship is concerned. With Barner and De’Anthony Thomas, the Ducks have diminutive, blazing, James-esque clones operating in an offense that has yet to fail to produce a star in the backfield and seems designed specifically for their talents. Not quite halfway through his first semester in college, Thomas already looks as lethal a big-play threat as any Oregon receiver of the last decade. Given the chance, Barner has regularly produced big plays in James’ shadow three years running.
The one thing neither has done: Serve as the focal point of the offense over any extended period of time. James is the center of attention; he’s the workhorse who’s picking up his 30th carry in the fourth quarter of a game his team leads by three touchdowns. If Barner and Thomas can deliver something approaching that level of consistency and/or reliability over the next three-to-four weeks, the offense is going to be fine against Arizona State, Colorado, Washington State and Washington. But if James isn’t back in time for a winner-take-all trip to Stanford on Nov. 12, that one, final carry at the end of a blowout is going to loom very large for a very long time.