The stars were back, but the Ducks do not appear ready for a grueling November.
Despite being an overwhelming 35-point favorite, No. 7 Oregon staggered its way to its seventh consecutive victory, a 43-28 decision over Washington State on a cloudy Saturday afternoon at Autzen Stadium.
“We've got guys in the locker room that act like we just got beat 50 to nothing,” said Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. “And, you know, I guess that's a good situation.”
LaMichael James was back as the starting tailback and Darron Thomas was back as the starting quarterback after both suffered injuries in games earlier this month, but neither player was particularly effective in the first half. James had just 16 yards on seven carries, and Thomas threw two interceptions — the first of which was in and out of his receiver's hands, the second of which was off target and returned for a touchdown that cut the Ducks' lead to 15-10, which is where the score stood at halftime.
WSU players were justifiably amped as they ran off the field at intermission.
So, was Bryan Bennett brought in to start the second half at quarterback because of Thomas' subpar first-half performance, or because Oregon head coach Chip Kelly wanted Thomas to rest up for the tough road ahead?
Is a quarterback controversy brewing?
“I didn't feel like (Thomas) was setting and throwing,” Kelly said after the game. “I would call (the decision to go to Bennett) performance-slash-injury based.”
Suddenly, Bennett and backup running back Kenjon Barner went from filling in admirably in wins over Arizona State and Colorado to saving the day against Washington State ... with some help from a rising young star.
De'Anthony Thomas, a true freshman, changed the game early in the second half when he took a short pass from Bennett, then sprinted down the left sideline, juking back and forth to avoid defenders and reach the end zone, giving the Ducks a 22-10 lead.
But Oregon led just 29-20 with 3:52 left in the third quarter — and if you listened hard enough, you could actually hear a smattering of boos among the Autzen faithful.
The rookie Thomas struck again with a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, setting the Oregon true-freshman record with his 11th touchdown of the season. He finished with 262 all-purpose yards. Barner, who led the Ducks with 107 rushing yards, then scored on a 28-yard run to give the Ducks a 43-20 cushion.
“We've always been a good second-half team,” said Bennett, who passed for 88 yards and ran for 25.
“I don't think I'm in no competition for my position,” Darron Thomas said. “I just think Bryan came out and did a good job.”
Oregon probably would have been trailing at halftime if not for two plays: a blocked punt by Avery Patterson that resulted in a Duck touchdown and a highlight-worthy play by Darron Thomas in what otherwise was a forgettable first half.
Thomas scrambled right, sprinted up the right sideline, then threw across his body to an open Lavasier Tuinei, who stumbled into the end zone for a 55-yard touchdown.
But two big plays in the first half will not bring a victory at Stanford in two weeks, or against USC on Nov. 19. Heck, it likely would not be enough to beat Washington next Saturday in Seattle.
“There were some things that (James) did out of character, and there were some things that Darron (Thomas) did out of character,” Helfrich said. “He (Thomas) missed some throws that he normally makes. He just didn't play up to his normal standard, and his standard is really high.”
So Bennett, Barner and De'Anthony Thomas sparked the Oregon offense in the second half, but the defense remained porous. It was the kind of defense that Washington quarterback Keith Price, and certainly Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, could pick apart.
Washington State finished the game with more yards than Oregon, 462 to 454, and the Cougars had the ball for 40 minutes, 26 seconds, to just 19:34 for the Ducks. Oregon gave up 337 passing yards.
“We need to go back and evaluate and see where we are,” said Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. “You never want a team to get a lot of yards on you, but yards don't beat you, points do. I've already said that we've got to play better. I can't worry about yards.”
As the Ducks (7-1 overall, 5-0 in conference) enter the toughest portion of their schedule, they have room for improvement. If their goal is a Pac-12 Conference championship, they must get better, starting next Saturday night in Seattle.
“We definitely have to be better,” Barner said. “We can't come out as sluggish. We've got to come out with the proper mentality that we're accustomed to coming out with — and play Oregon football.”