Superstar-less Ducks Cast Devils From Autzen

Already down all-world running back LaMichael James, the No. 9 Ducks were dealt another significant blow when quarterback Darron Thomas was knocked from the game in the second half against No. 18 Arizona State. However, in their stead, Kenjon Barner and redshirt freshman Bryan Bennett saved the day, leading Oregon to a 41-27 win over the Sun Devils.

Life without LaMichael James is life rife with struggle and hardship.

But life without James and quarterback Darron Thomas? Well, that's a life hardly worth living.

Or so you thought.

In the world of college football, "life" and "death" depends on having a special combination of quality personnel and depth; vital components to survival if one wishes to become predator as opposed to prey. The 9th ranked Oregon Ducks discovered those truths to be self-evident Saturday night against the 18th ranked Arizona State Sun Devils, surviving injuries to James (dislocated elbow versus Cal) and Thomas, who left Saturday's game with an apparent knee injury that may, or may not, having him sidelined for an extended period of time.

In their place, junior running back Kenjon Barner and redshirt freshman quarterback Bryan Bennett -- along with the help of an opportunistic defense, a determined offensive line and a stellar freshman named De'Anthony Thomas -- carried the heavy mantle admirably, leading the Ducks to an impressive 41-27 win over one of the best teams the Pac-12 has to offer this season.

"That's a good football team," said Oregon head coach Chip Kelly of Arizona State, "a real good football team...we talk about playing a full 60 minutes, and that's what we did."

They did that and then some.

Seemingly hamstrung by the loss of two of arguably their most irreplaceable players, the Ducks conducted business as usual, humming along as if they've played without their star-studded backfield tandem for the entire season.

In fact, in a strange way, they almost appeared stronger.

"I felt like we got a little more energetic and we came out a little more driven than what we were," remarked Barner when asked how the team responded after Thomas' injury.

"Darron's our leader and when you lose your leader, you gotta look to each other. You've got to come together as a team and pull it together. We were excited, we were driven and we wanted to make things happen."

Barner slogged through a lackluster first half, gaining a mere 23 yards on 10 carries.

Yet in the second half, Barner admitted he settled down, exploding for 141 yards and finishing the day with a career-high 164 yards rushing on 30 carries to go along with one touchdown.

Barner appeared to gain noticeable steam the more action he received and for Kelly, Barner's breakthrough performance in place of James was anything but a surprise.

"People question, when LaMichael is out, does the gameplan change and it doesn't," said Kelly. "I've seen Kenjon and we see him everyday in practice...I think Kenjon could start at a lot of schools in this country.

"The great part about it -- and LaMichael would be the first to tell you -- is that Kenjon is a talented, talented running back and I was really, really impressed (with his effort)."

Engineering the spirited second half surge was Bennett, who during one of the most critical moments of the season, exuded a poise and a confidence that was tangible the instant he stepped foot on the field. In fact, it was Bennett's feet that sparked back-to-back touchdown drives in the third quarter that extended Oregon's lead over Arizona State to 35-24.

"I think from the birds-eye view that we have, he was 100 percent on his run reads," said Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich of Bennett.

"I thought he did a nice job managing some situations that he was in...Talking on the phone, I thought he was great. He sounded great, I tried to ask him questions about what he was seeing and he was seeing the right things. As long as the guy is seeing the right thing and having the right response and taking care of the ball, that's a positive step for that guy."

Bennett finished the game with 71 rushing yards on only six carries, while going 2-for-5 for 22 yards through the air. When pressed in to meaningful duty for the first time this season, Bennett said his initial thought was one of concern for Thomas, though that thought quickly subsided as Bennett realized the game was effectively in his hands.

"I hoped Darron was ok -- that's my teammate, my friend and I don't want to see him go down like that -- but once I saw him down, I knew it was my time to step up and my time go and lead this offense."

And lead it he did, though for how much long is the true question. Next week, the Ducks travel to Boulder to face a hapless Colorado Buffalo team searching for it's first Pac-12 Conference win. Thomas vowed to be back for next Saturday's contest against the Buffs after the game, though that may have been the bravado and painkillers talking.

If faced with having making the first start of his career, Bennett is confident that after tonight's performance, he, Barner and company can lead this team without their superstars if need be.

"It's a great deal to know that if we have some guys go down that we can keep flowing like nothing happened," stated Bennett.

"Obviously, those guys are huge parts of our team, LaMichael and Darron, so we hope they get well soon, but until then we just gotta keep flowing and keep this thing going."

Follow Chris Courtney on Twitter at eDuckCCourtney

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