Oregon proves it's 'fearless' during turbulent season
Eugene, Ore. • Oregon's football season was characterized by the team's unwavering ability to push aside adversity: From the season-opening loss to LSU, to LaMichael James' elbow injury, to an ongoing NCAA investigation and a late-season stumble again USC.
In the end, the Ducks prevailed to finish 12-2 and prove they could win a big game on a big stage with a 45-38 victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
"What we learned from it, I think, is that it really just validates what we stand for, which is that this team is fearless," coach Chip Kelly said. "They're resilient and they've got faith. But that faith is based on preparation. It's not a fake thing we just talk about."
But that resiliency was tested this season.
Before it even got under way, questions were raised about a $25,000 payment Oregon made in 2010 to Texas-based Willie Lyles for a recruiting package he provided the school, both because of the size of the payment and Lyles' relationship with a 2010 recruit, Lache Seastrunk. When Oregon released the package they received from Lyles, it contained woefully outdated information.
The Ducks received formal notice this fall of an NCAA inquiry, which remains open. Oregon has hired a legal firm to aid in its handling of the matter and Seastrunk, a promising running back, has left the Ducks for Baylor.
More off-field issues arose during the summer when All-American cornerback Cliff Harris was stopped on Interstate 5 for driving 118 mph with a suspended license.
While Harris later was reinstated, a police dashboard camera recording the traffic stop showed the officer was concerned about the smell of marijuana coming from the vehicle, and Harris is heard saying "We smoked it all." The phrase would be immortalized on T-shirts.
Harris, suspended for the LSU game, never really recaptured the playmaking ability that turned heads his sophomore season. After another traffic stop that got him suspended again toward the end of the season, Kelly ultimately dismissed him from the team when he was cited for marijuana possession in California.
Coming off an appearance in the BCS championship game, the Ducks were ranked No. 3 in the preseason. But they opened with a 40-27 loss to then-No. 4 LSU at Cowboys Stadium.
Unbowed, Oregon inched back into the national picture, stringing together nine straight victories capped by a decisive 53-30 win over then-No. 3 Stanford which popped the Ducks back into the chase for the championship.
There were a few bumps down the stretch when James and quarterback Darron Thomas were injured.
James missed two games after dislocating his left elbow in a 43-15 victory at California on Oct. 6. While the absence knocked him out of the Heisman picture, it did little to slow him down.
James finished with 1,805 yards rushing this season and became the first player in Pac-12 history with three straight 1,500-yard seasons. He led the nation in rushing for the second straight season with 150.4 yards a game.
The junior, a Heisman finalist in 2010, has not made a formal announcement, but it is widely assumed he will forgo his senior season and declare his eligibility for this year's NFL draft.
After the Rose Bowl victory, James was reveling in being a Duck, saying he's "happy and content."
"I love my teammates and I just love being a part of this team," he said. "My happiness is here right now. And that's honestly how I feel right now."
Thomas hurt his left leg against Arizona State a week after James hurt his elbow. He was replaced capably by redshirt freshman Bryan Bennett, touching off a mini quarterback controversy.
Thomas missed one game because of the injury, but it didn't hurt his final stats either. The junior QB threw for 2,761 yards and 33 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. He also ran for three scores.
The Ducks were derailed in their second straight bid for the BCS title game by a 38-35 loss to USC on Nov. 19. The loss snapped Oregon's 21-game winning streak at Autzen Stadium and a 16-game overall streak against conference opponents.
With the Rose Bowl still on the line, Oregon easily defeated Oregon State in the Civil War and then UCLA in the inaugural Pac-12 title game.
The victory over the No. 10 Badgers in Pasadena was an important hurdle for the Ducks, who aspire to be counted among the nation's elite teams. Under Chip Kelly, Oregon fell to Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl before losing to Auburn in the national title game last year.
Rumblings that Oregon can't win big games have now been replaced by speculation about what's next for the Ducks.
Oregon has won three straight conference titles, but the string could be threatened next season when NCAA sanctions against the Trojans expire. USC has been out of the postseason for the past two seasons which is why the Bruins represented the Pac-12 South in the league championship game this season.
Thomas will be back, and even if James does not return next season, Oregon has already found his heir apparent in De'Anthony Thomas.
The versatile freshman running back led the team with an average of 159 all-purpose yards this season, and set an Oregon freshman record with 18 touchdowns: seven on the ground, nine via the pass and two on kickoff returns.
In the Rose Bowl against the Badgers, Thomas carried the ball just twice, once 91 yards for a touchdown and then 64 yards for another score.
After the game, Kelly joked about his star pupil: "I'll see if next year we can get him an extra carry or two."