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Oregon fans don't like having their intelligence insulted. Or maybe they just despise bad acting. That would explain the thunderous boos directed at Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas at Autzen Stadium in Eugene last Saturday night. Six minutes into the third quarter of the No. 4 Ducks' Pac-10 showdown with the ninth-ranked Cardinal, Thomas was unable—or unwilling—to stand. Onto the field dashed a quartet of Stanford medical personnel who eventually helped the sophomore to the sideline. Thomas's limp was dramatic at midfield. By the time he reached the bench, however, it had mysteriously disappeared, like Keyser Söze's at the end of The Usual Suspects. When Thomas trotted onto the field after missing exactly one play, he was razzed with gusto by the observant Autzen partisans.
Thomas may not have been injured, but that didn't mean he wasn't in acute distress. The Ducks had run seven plays in about 1:45—one play every 15 seconds. He and his teammates were flat-out gassed. "It's great when you see a team start to break," Oregon center Jordan Holmes would recall later. Trailing 21--3 in the first quarter and 31--24 at halftime, the Ducks pitched a shutout over the final 30 minutes and won going away, 52--31. Slow-starting Oregon has now outscored opponents 114--7 in the second half this season, a testament to the devastating effectiveness of coach Chip Kelly's hyperspeed zone-read offense.
As early as the second quarter on Saturday, the Cardinal's "hands were on their knees, and their tongues were hanging out," recounts Holmes. In the third quarter, "they were getting frustrated and confused. They couldn't get their calls in, they were yelling at each other."
Give the Cardinal credit: They resorted to only one fake injury. In Oregon's 41--32 win over Arizona State a week earlier, there were Sun Devils swooning all over the place. "We'd get going, and [opposing defenders] would start cramping up or maybe roll an ankle," says Holmes. "But then they'd miss only one snap. I guess they were getting really quick cramps, or getting their ankles taped really fast."
Against Stanford's 11th-ranked defense, Oregon rushed for 388 yards—257 of them from the smallest power back in America, 5'9", 185-pound LaMichael James. Challenged by his coaches after the Arizona State game to stop "dancing" (to spend less time running sideways), James gouged out the bulk of his yards against the Cardinal between the tackles. Case in point: his fourth-quarter coup de grâce, a 76-yard burst up the middle with 70 seconds left to play. That touchdown, James's third of the night, "was a blur," effused Kelly, who was less enthusiastic about divining the significance of his team's biggest victory of the season. "It means we're 5--0," he kept saying.
It means more than that, of course. It means that, following a turbulent off-season during which the coach booted his star quarterback, Jeremiah Masoli, for serial violations of team rules, the Ducks are looking like the best outfit not just in the Pac-10 but possibly this side of Tuscaloosa (see box). While Oregon was amassing 626 yards of total offense against the highly touted Cardinal, No. 2 Ohio State needed a late touchdown drive to nail down an artless 24--13 win over unranked Illinois. And Boise State's 59--0 drubbing of overmatched New Mexico State was not enough to prevent it from being leapfrogged by the Ducks for the No. 3 spot in the AP poll.
In his fifth start and his first appearance on a truly grand stage, Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas completed 20 of 29 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 117 yards on 15 carries, allaying fears in Duck Nation that he lacked the intellectual wherewithal to run Kelly's signature zone-read option. "We can put that rumor to bed," the coach proclaimed. Indeed, against the Cardinal, Thomas ran the zone-read with a maestro's panache, evoking memories of Masoli.
Considering how good Thomas already is, and Kelly's track record of improving his quarterbacks, it's not a stretch to say that the Ducks haven't just replaced Masoli. They've upgraded.
Darron Thomas was bayou-bound. The quarterback from Aldine High in Houston had relatives in Louisiana. His mother, Latina, wanted him to play in Louisiana. He'd gone to LSU's camp two summers in a row and committed to the Tigers as a junior. "He was an LSU guy all the way," recalls Bob Jones, who coached Thomas at Aldine. But Thomas's affections were not completely requited. Even after he pledged his allegiance to Les Miles, the Tigers' head man continued to recruit quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Thomas saw his position on recruiting websites change from quarterback to athlete.
On Nov. 23, 2007, Jones and Thomas were guests of LSU for the Tigers' game against Arkansas—a triple-overtime 50--48 win by the Razorbacks. "Greatest game I've ever seen," says Jones, "but Darron couldn't enjoy it." Before the game, Jones had delivered a friendly reminder to Miles: "Remember, whatever you do, don't call Darron an athlete." Among The Hat's first words to Thomas that day: "Darron, you're a great athlete. You can do a lot of different things."