EUGENE, Ore. -- The very first possession ended with an interception. Oregon had roared downfield and appeared ready to score when Darron Thomas dropped back, fired -- and suddenly he was racing downfield, trying to catch a defender. It wasn't what anyone had hoped to see from Oregon's new starting quarterback. It was what many had half-expected, though, and the collective thought was:
This was against New Mexico in the season opener. Oregon eventually won 72-0. And it turned out the quarterback hadn't misread the defense; an offensive lineman had missed a block, allowing a defender to intercept the screen pass. But we point out the moment because as the Ducks prepare for the season finale Saturday at Oregon State, they're 11-0 with the inside track to the BCS Championship, and their sophomore quarterback is the biggest reason why. "Uh oh" long ago became "Oh, my."
Let's backtrack a bit. Last January, when everyone did their very early preseason rankings, Oregon was a chic top 10 pick. The Ducks were coming off a Pac-10 title and a loss in the Rose Bowl to Ohio State, but they were bringing back almost everybody for 2010, including a playmaking quarterback. Then Jeremiah Masoli ran into some trouble, and suddenly even the most optimistic fans figured it was time to turn down expectations a notch, or maybe two.
Thomas and Nate Costa would compete to replace Masoli. Regardless of who won the job, the thinking was Oregon would be good. But the concern was how much an inexperienced quarterback would limit a very talented offense.
"We don't have too many question marks," Costa said last summer. "Quarterback is one of those."
As another wet winter settles in, though, quarterback isn't a question mark, but an exclamation point. A third-year sophomore, Thomas is the best quarterback Chip Kelly has had in four years at Oregon (two as offensive coordinator, two as head coach). Better than Masoli. Better than Dennis Dixon in 2007, when the Ducks last made a serious run at the BCS title.
Sophomore running back LaMichael James is the Heisman Trophy candidate, and the rest of the roster is filled with talent and speed. But Thomas is the biggest reason Oregon is one step away from making its first appearance in a BCS Championship game.
"He's the perfect athlete, the perfect passer for that system," said Oregon State coach Mike Riley, whose Beavers have the final shot, Saturday afternoon in Corvallis, at derailing Thomas and the Ducks. "He's all you could ask for."
To outside observers, the battle between Thomas and Costa during fall camp appeared to be a close competition. Within the football offices, however, it wasn't. Thomas had taken control and pulled away. Oregon has done the same thing all season. There's a correlation.
Start with the statistics. Thomas ranks a respectable 21st nationally in passing efficiency (152.23). He's completed 61 percent of his passes for 2,373 yards, with 26 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. What do the numbers mean?
Oregon has integrated a vertical passing game that wasn't there with Masoli (probably because Masoli kept running). Where Masoli was a freelancer, Thomas is a distributor. Don't misunderstand. He can run, and occasionally does. Former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, now an ESPN analyst, said Masoli is quicker, "but Darron is faster and just as sudden."
Bellotti also praises Thomas' "temperament, his accuracy, his decision-making, his willingness to hang in the pocket and take hits." That last part is the biggest difference between Thomas and his predecessor. Where Masoli would take off -- often producing a highlight, sometimes creating more trouble for himself -- Thomas is more apt to stand and deliver.
Ask Kelly what he likes best about Thomas, and the answer comes in a hurry (to be fair, so do almost all of Kelly's answers): "Toughness."
"A lot of guys look at the rush and try to scramble out of there and make plays," Kelly said. "(Thomas) will stand in there and throw the football no matter what. It's a unique quality for a quarterback to have and he's as good as I've ever seen at it."
Would Oregon be in the same place right now -- 11-0, No. 2 in the BCS rankings -- if Masoli hadn't gotten into trouble? It's hard to say, but the Ducks are more balanced. Don't ask Thomas. Not long ago, when I suggested he's better than Masoli, and a better fit for Oregon, he shook his head in disagreement.
"Different skill sets," he said -- making the case, anyway.
Thomas has taken Kelly's spread option attack to another level, even as he's shown similar intangibles.
After Oregon scored only one offensive touchdown last month in a narrow escape at Cal, the talk was that the Golden Bears had finally discovered the blueprint to beat the Ducks. Actually, they were employing a fairly familiar tactic; simplified, they sold out to stop the run and dared Oregon to pass.
In the Rose Bowl loss last season to Ohio State, the Buckeyes did much the same thing -- and Masoli threw for 81 yards. It's still the best tactic to slow Oregon. It just has less chance of succeeding.
That day three weeks ago in Berkeley, Thomas wasn't sharp (no one was). He missed receivers he usually hits; they dropped passes they typically catch. But with the game on the line, Thomas led the most important drive of the season.
In 19 plays, Thomas moved Oregon downfield 68 yards, draining the final 9:25, preserving a two-point lead. Like that first drive against New Mexico, the possession yielded no points. But it revealed something about the quarterback. Which, finally, brings us to Thomas' most important quality.
"Lack of conscience," Bellotti said. "When a bad play happens, it's gone. Darron doesn't let the last play or the last quarter affect what he thinks about the next play."
It sounds simple, but it's not easy -- and it's not a universal trait.
That Thomas possesses it was evident in the second game, when Oregon trailed Tennessee by 10 points in the first half. No, this wasn't a very good Vols team, but Neyland Stadium was rocking. James had been bottled up (27 yards in the first half) and the Ducks were sputtering.
In retrospect, it was part of the Ducks' modus operandi: slow starts, second-half explosions. But at the time, it was a stiff challenge for a quarterback making his second start.
Thomas was unfazed. He led Oregon back into a tie by halftime, dropping a perfect 27-yard teardrop to tight end David Paulson with 1:04 left, and the Ducks won 48-13.
It's been like that all season. The Ducks trailed at Arizona State by 10, but won by 11. They were down 18 early to Stanford, and three in the third quarter at USC, but won by 21 points both times. Plenty of chances for a young quarterback to falter. Instead, he's flourished, making big plays and good decisions.
"Darron's been the same every game," Kelly said. "He doesn't get rattled. I think he has a real calming influence on our team."
Kelly also calls Thomas a "one-timer," meaning he makes a mistake once, learns from it and doesn't repeat it. As the season has progressed, Thomas has, too.
"The experience factor is huge for him," Kelly said. "He's just gotten smarter and smarter and smarter in terms of where he's going with the football."
Back to that interception in the first quarter of the quarterback's first start. Thomas chased the guy down, made the tackle, and then shrugged, saying it was all part of the job.
"I'm going to come out and make every play that we have to make," he said.
So far he's done that.