Sunday December 5th, 2010

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- As they waited in a narrow hallway to address the media following their team's victory over Oregon State, Darron Thomas sought out LaMichael James lounging against a wall.

"Did you hear? Auburn's up 42-14," the Oregon quarterback said excitedly.

James barely reacted.

"C'mon," said the Ducks' star running back. "I'm not going to think about that right now."

Oregon players weren't entirely sure how to react after completing a 12-0 regular season and earning their school's first BCS National Championship Game berth with a 37-20 victory over their in-state rivals. After 12 weeks of rigid adherence to coach Chip Kelly's "Win the Day" motto, should they celebrate the culmination of their historic victory or begin looking ahead to the Big Game on Jan. 10?

"It's a big deal that we get to play in the national championship," said Thomas, "but we got to the Rose Bowl last year and we didn't finish it. It's important to finish."

James wasn't finished enjoying Saturday's win.

"I'm celebrating this one -- I don't know about him," said James. "I'm going to milk this one for a few days. We don't play again for I don't know how long."

For 37 days, to be exact -- which should be plenty of time for the Ducks to reflect on their accomplishment. But since the business-minded Kelly won't likely allow it ("We've got work to do," he said Saturday), we'll just have to do it instead.

A program that once went 26 years between bowl appearances and won just one Pac-10 championship during the second half of the 20th century is heading to Glendale, Ariz., to play for the biggest prize of all. It will mark the crescendo of a 16-year rise from college football afterthought to nationally recognized power, complete with signature uniforms, catchy rap songs and a trend-setting offense.

The Ducks are packing up the whole production (uniform combination to be determined) and bringing it to the desert for a week of rapid-fire Kelly press conferences, during which reporters from multiple continents will try to dissect his new-fangled offense. And on Jan. 10, Kelly's team will attempt to end the SEC's four-year stranglehold over the sport when it meets Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers.

As the clock wound down Saturday with Oregon's victory in hand, the Duck -- not the old Donald Duck replica mascot, but the new, modern version -- climbed a ladder in front of the green and yellow contingent of Reser Stadium, broke open a bag of Tostitos and doused himself in its contents. Nearby on the sideline, Nike founder, proud alum and program benefactor Phil Knight smiled and laughed when asked if he ever thought he'd see this day.

"Exactly on plan," Knight said.

Saturday's game went according to Kelly's plan as well, even if felt more workmanlike and less explosive than most of the Ducks' other victories this season. The Ducks decided they were going to run the ball, then run it some more against the 5-6 Beavers, and thus the speedy James found himself sharing carries with the equally speedy (if not faster) Kenjon Barner to ease the load. The result: James rushed 28 times for 134 yards; Barner 15 times for 133.

They combined for three rushing touchdowns, but only Barner's 23-yard dash to go up 30-13 early in the fourth quarter took on the form of Oregon's patented one-step-and-he's-gone plays. In fact, the longest run of the day came from linebacker Michael Clay, who, on a fourth-and-seven from the Ducks' own 28-yard-line early in the third quarter, took the snap on a fake punt and ran unobstructed through the middle of the field for a 64-yard gain.

Again, it was just part of the plan.

"We were going to do it the first time we punted," said Kelly. "That turned out to be the third quarter."

Give Oregon State credit. In holding the Ducks to their second-lowest scoring output of the season, the Beavers' defense hung tough for much of the first three quarters. Though James and Barner combined for 169 yards in the first half, it netted a modest 16 points for the Ducks due in part to two early fumbles. To start the second half, the Beavers stopped an Oregon fourth-down conversion attempt at their 30 and seemed to have the Ducks stopped for a three-and-out when Kelly called for the fake punt. They forced a third-and-six after that only to see Thomas throw a 19-yard touchdown to go up 23-7 with 8:39 left in the third quarter.

The Beavers' offense still had chances in the second half to get back in the game. With quarterback Ryan Katz overcoming two first-half interceptions and a hard hit on his first pass attempt that briefly sidelined him, Oregon State drove inside the Ducks' five-yard line on consecutive third-quarter possessions, but settled for field goals both times, making it 23-13. Teams don't beat Oregon with field goals, as became evident moments later when Barner broke off his 26-yard touchdown.

"When we have to grind it out, we grind it out," said Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl. "We showed it against Cal (a 15-13 victory, the Ducks' lone close win to date) and we showed it again today."

It helped that Oregon's defense turned in one of its most dominant performances of the season, holding the Beavers to 235 total yards and intercepting four passes (three by Katz, one by kicker Johnny Hekker on a fake field-goal attempt), all remarkably on deflected passes. Oregon defenders got their hands on 11 of Oregon State's 43 pass attempts, including two each by defensive tackle Brandon Bair and linebacker Spencer Paysinger.

"[Katz] didn't have time to throw down field," said Bair. "In my opinion, we did a good job getting pressure on him."

Afterward Kelly, the frenetic 47-year-old coach who is still just four years removed from being the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, used words like "huge" and "awesome" to describe his players' performance both Saturday and all season. He commended them for overcoming a slew of offseason adversity, most notably the dismissal of two-year starting quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and several other off-field incidents, including James' arrest and ensuing one-game suspension for a domestic dispute.

"It's an unbelievable group of guys," said Kelly. "The best part about [reaching the title game] is, yeah, you get to play for the national championship, but we get to spend another six weeks with these guys. It's awesome."

So awesome that Kelly, like Thomas, is already looking ahead to Auburn.

"We're not playing for a national championship now -- we're going to prepare for it," he said. "Let's get some game tape going and get at it."

The Ducks have won 12 straight games. Now they just need to Win the Day -- 37 more times.

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