Byline: George Schroeder The Register-Guard
LaMichael James is down - not for long, he says, but who really knows? - and so the question as Oregon nears the season's halfway pointis simple:
Who's got next?
Even as James' right elbow popped back into place, you could almost hear the gears whirring in Chip Kelly's head as the coach pondered his options: Kenjon Barner, and Tra Carson, and how best to get the ball to De'Anthony Thomas.
"Other guys have to step up - that's what this deal's all about," the coach said, and he's exactly right.
Without their biggest star, the Ducks need their other running backs. Those guys are talented, sure, and plenty explosive. But I'm not sure it's doable, replacing James' production and highlight potential- or as important, his often overlooked toughness.
Which is why as long as we're talking about stepping up, it's timeto focus on Oregon's most important player, the guy with the best chance to become the Ducks' catalyst.
You ready, Darron Thomas?
Don't misunderstand. The junior quarterback has been solid enough,and poised as ever, and a leader on the field. But it's time for special, because this season still has every chance to be.
Never mind the loss to LSU, and never mind the loss of LaMichael. There's plenty of opportunity available for Oregon. A third straight conference championship. A Rose Bowl. Also, it's a very long shot, but another trip to the BCS Championship game is not completely out of reach.
That last one requires crazy chaos, and plenty of it - but that's college football . The point here is, the season isn't quite to the halfway point, and it's all still out there, waiting, if the Ducks can capitalize.
They'll need better play from their quarterback. It will take the improvement we all expected to see from Thomas after his splendid sophomore season, and especially after the BCS Championship.
Remember? Thomas shook off a shaky start to pass for 363 yards. With the run game stuffed, Thomas passed the Ducks back into a tie late, and even though Auburn won, the takeaway was wow, this kid's going to be superb in 2011.
So far, he's only been solid.
Nothing wrong with that. But Oregon needs special, now more than ever.
Thomas is completing 59 percent of his passes. He's thrown 15 touchdowns against only two interceptions. His numbers are about as good as last year's - and the TD-to-interception ratio has been much better.
But if we're being real here, he hasn't been consistent. Instead of sharp, his passing has too often looked fuzzy.
Thursday against Cal, Thomas sputtered early, missing open receivers. James' long runs only partly covered up an otherwise forgettable first-half performance. Kelly's two-word assessment of the Ducks' offense in the first 30 minutes:
His take on the second half - "Good," the coach expounded - was inpart because Thomas was much better. More in sync with his receivers. More on target.
And I get it, some of the issues this season have been because of the inexperience at receiver, and also on the offensive line. But good news, both units are getting better. It's possible with a healthy Josh Huff and De'Anthony Thomas' continued emergence, the Ducks have found speed to stretch the field.
But things get tougher from here, starting this week. Even if James hadn't gotten hurt, improved quarterback play would be imperative.
I watched college football from the couch Saturday. Fixated for awhile on Arizona State's win at Utah. The Sun Devils, you might have heard, come to Eugene this weekend. They'll bring a potent offense anda hard-hitting defense with attitude. Yards and points might be hardto come by.
Oregon's offense is predicated on the running game. That doesn't change. But without its best runner, passing becomes even more important.
Also, it's probably time to unleash the quarterback run game. I know, we're told Thomas is making the correct reads - but it sure looksas if, since midseason last year, he's been harnessed. When Thomas keeps the ball and goes, it works (see his 25-yard scamper against Cal).
Let's see Thomas do more of that. And let's hope he morphs into the player we expected.
Going into the year, there was crazy talk about whether the Ducks might have two Heisman contenders. Thomas doesn't have to be that good.
But he needs to be better than he has been.
We've seen flashes, and it's clear the quarterback is capable of being very, very good. It's time..
There's opportunity waiting ahead. In James' absence, it might be up to Thomas to take them there.
OREGON VS. ARIZONA STATE
7:15 p.m. Saturday, Autzen Stadium. TV: ESPN.Radio: KUGN-AM (590),KZEL-FM (96.1).