EUGENE, Ore. -- For two seasons now, quarterback Darron Thomas and tailback LaMichael James have been the keys to Chip Kelly's sports-car offense, teaming up to win 17 of Oregon's last 19 contests. However, for most of the second half of the No. 9 Ducks' Saturday night game against No. 18 Arizona State, neither Batman nor Robin graced the playing field.
Oregon lost James to a dislocated elbow in last week's game against Cal, in which he posted his third-straight 200-yard rushing performance. Thomas went down with a leg injury in the third quarter Saturday after competing 13-of-17 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns. The Ducks, now without two players who'd accounted for 74 percent of their total offense on the season, fell behind 24-21 shortly after Thomas exited.
The Ducks (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12) won going away, 41-27, putting up their usual 536 yards in the process. They scored 17 unanswered points after Thomas jogged to the locker room, the offense quickly adjusting with a new quarterback, redshirt freshman Bryan Bennett, and its defense seeming to grow stronger as the game went on.
"They understand that people getting banged up is part of the game," said Kelly. "We don't talk about injuries, we talk about opportunities for someone else."
Kelly has been doing this for five years now, dating to his days as Oregon's offensive coordinator. The star running back's not available? Oregon goes to the air more, gaining 187 of its 245 yards through the air in the first half. The quarterback goes down? Enter Bennett, a fleet-footed redshirt freshman who ran the triple jump in high school. Executing the read-option like a veteran, Bennett broke off 36- and 18-yard runs on his second full drive of the half.
"He's kind of fast, isn't he?" joked Duck offensive lineman Carson York. "We're really lucky to have a really good backup."
Bennett did this once before. As a sophomore at Crespi High School in Encinco, Calif., he took over as starter after current UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince went down with a knee injury in the first game of the season. Oregon didn't ask him to do too much (he attempted just five passes), but he managed the game well. Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said he made the right read "nearly 100 percent of the time" on those zone-run plays.
"I've been put in this position before," said Bennett. "It taught me that all you can do is stay poised."
Oregon even briefly lost James' backup, Kenjon Barner, for a brief stretch of the third quarter. No worries. The Ducks have explosive true freshman De'Anthony Thomas, who ran for a 16-yard touchdown and a 29-yard gain. And Barner came back in plenty of time to wear down the Devils (5-2, 3-1) in the second half, finishing with 171 yards on 31 carries.
"People ask, 'When LaMichael's out, does that change the game plan?' It doesn't," said Kelly. "Kenjon could start at a lot of schools in the country. We're fortunate to have some depth in the backfield."
As it makes it attempt for a third straight conference championship, Oregon showed yet again Saturday night that it's the same explosive bunch as ever. Its 40-27 loss to LSU in the season opener is both a distant memory and, as it turns out, a better performance than any of the top-ranked Tigers' subsequent opponents have managed. But it's obviously a great deal more explosive when it has Thomas and James, both of whom have three weeks to get healthy in time for the two games that will presumably decide the Pac-12 North champion -- Oregon's back-to-back trips to 5-1 Washington (Nov. 5) and 6-0 Stanford (Nov. 12).
Kelly declined to offer any specifics on Thomas' injury, but he appeared to buckle in an uncomfortable position beneath the weight of ASU tackler Colin Parker at the end of a 6-yard run. Thomas, who wore a brace on his left leg when he returned from the locker room but seemed to be walking comfortably, said he banged up both his knees, but that "I'm going to be all right." He was held out for "precautionary reasons," and in fact asked Kelly to come back with Oregon up two touchdowns. He hopes to return next week against Colorado.
Kelly said he's "got a lot of confidence in Bryan" if Thomas were to miss more time.
James, who was initially believed to be out two to three weeks, was similarly optimistic. "I feel really good," he said Saturday night. "If I had to play [next week], I'd play. I don't know if I'd be 100 percent, I might be 80 percent, but I could play."
Oregon's fortunes going forward may rest less with Thomas and James than with its bend-but-don't-break defense, which will have the unenviable task of defending Washington's Keith Price and Stanford's Andrew Luck in the span of eight days. Saturday night, Arizona State gunslinger Brock Osweiler shredded that defense early, going 6-of-6 for 73 yards on a first-quarter touchdown drive that put the Sun Devils up 14-7. Facing little duress, Oweiler completed 11 of his first 13 passes.
But seemingly just when it needed to most -- shortly after Thomas' injury -- the Ducks turned up the heat. After Oregon reclaimed the lead early in the third quarter, 28-24, the defense forced a three-and-out, after which Bennett and Barner teamed up for a five-play, 88-yard touchdown drive. Toward the end of the third quarter, after the Ducks went up 35-24, Josh Kaddu and Dewitt Stuckey teamed up for back-to-back sacks that forced a three and out.
ASU finished with 460 yards, but scored just three points in the fourth quarter.
"We came out a little bit flat in the beginning," said Stuckey. "As the game went on, we fought hard to get better."
Oregon also benefitted from no shortage of breaks -- most of them of ASU's own doing. Dennis Erickson's notoriously undisciplined team lived up to its reputation. Twice in the first half it committed personal fouls (one by one-man penalty machine Vontaze Burfict, the other by Bo Moos) that helped keep Oregon drives alive. In both instances it scored shortly thereafter. And in a key turning point shortly before halftime, a 12-yard completion from Osweiler to receiver Gerell Robinson got wiped out when Robinson threw the ball to the ground in the direction of a fallen Oregon defender. One play later, Cliff Harris intercepted Osweiler and returned it 50 yards, after which Darron Thomas completed three straight passes to put a touchdown on the board before the break.
Even near game's end, the Sun Devils had a slim chance to come back, but a wide-open Jamal Miles dropped an Osweiler pass in the end zone, which Oregon's Anthony Gildon intercepted to seal it.
Thus did Kelly's team secure its 20th straight home victory in front of a school-record 60,005 spectators. These aren't the 2010 Ducks, crushing everyone in their path en route to the national championship game. Oregon endured more adversity in its season opener than it did all of last year, and it's seemingly continued with injuries to its two brightest stars.
Yet the 40-point outputs continue and the wins keep piling up. Kelly's car keeps on driving, even if he has to keep changing the wheels.