Once again, the Ducks of Oregon traveled southward looking for validation in an NFL stadium against an opponent from the Southeastern Conference. Once again, they are left to fly back to Eugene reeling from the knockout punch of an opponent that found their weaknesses and exploited them mercilessly.
Eight months ago it was Auburn in the national championship game, the Tigers squeezing by the Ducks in the spotlight of University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona to make Cam Newton millions as the first pick in the NFL draft. That win depended as much on Michael Dyer’s miraculous Matrix moves to stay on his feet and sustain what looked like a dead drive at the end as it did on any other factor. Either team was in that game until Wes Byrum punched the winning points through the crossbars.
We didn’t have to wait nearly as long last night when the Oregon battled LSU in Cowboys Stadium to kick off both teams’ seasons in a clash of top-five squads.
LSU played four quarters of smart football. Oregon did not. And that is what made all the difference. Even when LSU turned over the ball first — Lee had stepped up toward the line out of the shotgun to call out adjustments when his center misfired the ball into the backfield with nobody to receive it, and OLB Boseko Lokombo pounced to give Oregon the ball in the red zone — the Tigers seemed in control on both offense and defense.
The Ducks wouldn’t even get seven points out of that good fortune, stalling after just one pass completion from Darron Thomas to Lavasier Tuinei for seven yards. Rob Beard came out to put through a go-ahead field goal from 30 yards out to give his team the 6-3 lead. On the next possession the defense would hold LSU on two straight plays as they swapped sides of the field on a 3rd and 10.
Oregon would hold… but then the 4th-down punt would set off a sequence of events that put the game suddenly out of reach. For the two-time defending champion of the Pac-10, this ultimately proved to be a chain reaction that set things inevitably out of whack and out of reach as a too-good LSU team took control of its destiny.
First, the punt went into the air, Aussie punter Brad Wing launching up a high booming shot that faded right toward the corner. Barner fielded the ball on his own 5, for some reason too afraid or too stubborn to let it bounce or to raise his arm for a fair catch, and was swarmed by Tigers. Tyrann Mathieu scooped up the muffed punt, swooped the last few yards over the goal line and put his team up 9-6. Drew Alleman would miss the extra point, but the snowball had already started rolling.
After getting the ball back on the kickoff, the Ducks faced 2nd and 11 on their own 11. There was just a minute gone in the second quarter and already their opponent had scored twice the points in the frame than they could all of the first quarter. LaMichael James was running nothing like his Heisman-contending self, cramping up in the Texas heat and failing to find holes. So Darron Thomas floated a ball up the right side… right into the waiting hands of CB Tharold Simon.
LSU’s offense would stall on the drive, going three-and-out to give the ball right back to Oregon. With each play and each move of the chains, it was beginning to look as though Chip Kelly had finally figured out John Chavis’ defensive schemes that the Tigers were throwing against his offense. On the 19th play of the drive, 79 yards downfield from where they had started, James pounded in the carry from three yards out to give Oregon back the lead. Beard was good on the extra point, and the Ducks led 13-9 with five minutes left in the first half.
But the Ducks know all too well how an offensive engine can perform as soon as you remove the governor that is Gary Crowton’s playbook. Jarrett Lee looked calm and competent, taking one sack to set up 3rd and 12 and then throwing an 18-yard chain-moving completion on the next snap. He would go 3-of-3 on four called pass plays, that sack the only blemish as his 32 passing yards complemented the running of Spencer Ware and Michael Ford. Lee would finish the drive with a 10-yard touchdown completion to Rueben Randle to take the lead back to the locker room at halftime.
The two turnovers before halftime had been costly for the Ducks, but they had only cost them six points on the fumble return. The two blown plays had taken little time off the clock, with less than a minute elapsed in LSU’s drive following the Darron Thomas fumble. What would happen after both teams returned to the field for the second half would prove the turning point in the contest, the snowball picking up enough snow and speed to become an avalanche.
LSU would get the ball back to start the final thirty, going 30 yards in 7 plays before punting. Oregon and the Tigers would trade three-and-outs on the next two drives. As the Ducks received the ball at the 9:00 mark in the 3rd quarter, the team’s backfield was thinning drastically as both LaMichael and Kenjon were sidelined with leg cramps.
In stepped De’Anthony Thomas, the blue-chip true freshman from Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, the kid who had been expected all along to become a Trojan yet was now with the new powerhouse in the Pac-12. He had been Darron (no-relation) Thomas’ go-to guy in the first half, catching five passes to that point out of a receiver position for 29 yards and moving the chains a few times. Now the highly-touted tailback was getting his chance to shine in the backfield with the two starters sitting enfeebled.
He would bust off his first college carry for five yards. His second would net two more. It was now 3rd and 3, Oregon sitting on their own 13, pinned back once again by a great Brad Wing punt. Running past the sticks, Thomas had picked up the first down on his third straight carry up the middle. But he hadn’t counted on Sam Montgomery getting in there and hitting the loosely-held football; still unused to just how well he had to protect the ball in his hands, it squirted right out into the waiting arms of Eric Reid.
LSU would get the ball on the Oregon 21, and went to work on the ground with Spencer Ware. The sophomore from Cincinnati took it four straight times, churning out 16 hard-earned yards and a first down to get the Tigers to the 5. Michael Ford came on in relief to finish the deal, scoring on the next play. This time Alleman wouldn’t miss his extra-point attempt, the freshman kicker looking less jittery this time. And LSU would eat 1:48 off the clock in the short drive, precious seconds the Ducks could never get back for their offense as the lead extended to ten.
The next kickoff would finish the sequence, as De’Anthony was on the field to return the kickoff as Barner remained on the bench. Thomas fielded the kick cleanly in the lights, and burst through a few cracks for a 25-yard return. But at the end, once again employing a loose grip, the ball was popped free and LSU once again recovered a fumble. On two straight touches, the freshman tailback had gone from hero-in-the-making to the cause of the team’s flagging fortunes.
Which isn’t fair in and of itself. LSU would score on the next drive to make it a 17-point lead. From there, the two teams would trade punches, with Oregon missing more opportunities to claw back the gap. But LSU proved that their defense is as formidable as any in the country on this night, allowing two touchdowns to the always-potent Duck offense but keeping them always at arm’s length from making it truly interesting.
De’Anthony Thomas’ fumbles were the ultimate demise, a rapid 14-point swing that allowed LSU to eliminate five minutes from the contest and proved the ultimate difference on the scoreline. But it never felt like LSU was throwing away this game. Jarrett Lee was unspectacular — just 10-of-22 for 98 yards and the one touchdown pass to Randle — but he was also unflappable. Rare were the truly unfathomable decisions by the senior. His counterpart, Darron Thomas, put up more eye-pleasing numbers — 31-of-54 for 240 yards with a touchdown offsetting his interception — but he also looked uncertain in the pocket.
The tailback advantage went to the youngsters in the LSU backfield. Ware and Ford combined for 195 yards and three scores on 40 carries, their ability to find running lanes and move the chains instrumental in LSU’s advantage in possession. Even when you factor in De’Anthony’s contribution to that of James and Barner, the guys everyone expected to singe the carpet in Cowboys Stadium, the Ducks running backs carried just 26 times for 83 yards and two short touchdown runs.
When the Ducks abandoned their traditional formula, the game was doomed from the start. De’Anthony Thomas merely provided a convenient flashpoint where we could say the game was truly lost. The Texas heat sapped the confidence of Oregon’s offense as it toppled its skill players with one cramp after another. Ultimately it was LSU who played like a top-five team, and Oregon who was left to wonder what had happened once again after another game that looked an awful lot like their other offensive sputters at Boise State and against Ohio State and Auburn in Chip Kelly’s tenure.